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Renting: Tenant leaves, claims domestic abuse. What about the lease?

  • Article by: KELLY KLEIN
  • Renting and the law
  • October 27, 2012 - 3:30 PM

Q We rent a house to four university students, all of whom passed background checks and signed a one-year lease. Within two weeks of moving in, two of the tenants got into a fight. One tenant moved out, claiming domestic abuse. That tenant has now served us with papers consisting of a restraining order stating withdrawal from the lease because of domestic violence under Minnesota law. The other three tenants would like to remain in the unit, but state they are unable to pay the full monthly cost. The tenant moving out wants her portion of the security deposit returned. Are the remaining three tenants obligated to pay the full monthly rent, as the lease states they are individually and jointly responsible for it? Is the lease still valid, since it was signed by all four tenants? Are we obligated to return the security deposit? At this point in the school year, it is unlikely we would be able to rent the unit to someone else. Does the landlord have any rights in this situation?

A Under Minnesota law, tenants who are victims of domestic abuse and fear imminent domestic abuse may terminate a lease agreement without penalty or liability, if they provide written notice to their landlord stating they fear domestic abuse from a person named in an order, such as the restraining order your tenant gave you. The letter must contain language stating that the tenant needs to terminate the lease, along with a termination date. It sounds to me like the letter you received contained the proper notice for terminating a lease based on domestic abuse. However, under Minnesota law, the tenant terminating her lease early is still responsible for the rent payment for the full month in which is she is terminating, plus an additional amount equal to one month's rent.

You are obligated to return her portion of the security deposit 21 days after the lease is terminated, which in this case, is probably the date you received her withdrawal of lease notice. You need to send a letter including the amounts withheld and what repairs that money is being used to cover. However, it doesn't sound like she was there very long, so you may not be withholding any amount. If she fails to give you her current month's rent owed, plus one additional month's rent, then you may use her security deposit to cover her past-due rent.

The lease is still valid, and the remaining three tenants are obligated to pay the full monthly rent because your lease states they are liable for the entire amount. If your remaining three tenants cannot afford the entire rent amount, even though they are liable for it, you may want them to find a fourth renter, or you may want to help them find one. You can still require the same background checks and that the new tenant sign the lease, so you know who is living there and have someone to go after for the rent if there are problems.

Bedbug inspection fallout

Q I have been renting an apartment in St. Paul for a couple of years. About two months ago, our apartment complex had a bedbug inspection in all of the units. I just received a notice that the apartment management will not renew my lease. So I called the main office to find out why. They told me they found some paraphernalia in one of the bedrooms of my two-bedroom apartment. Management also told me they took pictures of it. Can they legally do that?

A The short answer is yes. Basically, a landlord has the right to not renew a lease for any reason, so long as it is not an illegal reason, such as discrimination against a protected class or retaliation for a tenant pursuing their rights under a lease.

There is nothing to prevent the landlord from deciding not to renew your lease in this instance. Minnesota law prohibits a tenant from allowing controlled substances on the property. Violating this provision breaches the tenant's right to continue to inhabit the property, and gives the landlord the right to seek an immediate eviction.

Documenting the paraphernalia with photos was probably a good idea on the landlord's part, in case the landlord wanted to pursue the matter in court. Maybe they didn't see any drugs, and decided not to evict immediately. Consider yourself lucky that the landlord did not choose to pursue the matter in court. It is very hard to find a place to rent after being evicted for drugs.

Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to kklein@kleinpa.com. Information provided by readers is not confidential.

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