Q: I signed a new 12-month lease in May. The landlord, at the last minute, added a handwritten clause stating that I could have only 12 overnight visitors at my place, which is one unit in a duplex. I didn’t like this new clause, but I signed the lease anyway. Then I started dating my girlfriend, who now stays over quite a bit.
Last week, my landlord told me he was terminating the lease and wanted me to move out by Oct. 31 because I broke the overnight visitor rule. Does a landlord have the right to limit overnight visitors in a rental situation?
A: A tenant breaches a lease when he or she violates the rules or provisions contained in the lease. Minnesota doesn’t have a state law that limits overnight guests or visitors to a tenant’s rental property. However, a landlord may include a provision in the lease that prohibits certain acts or behavior, such as limiting the number of overnight guests, or requiring that all adults residing in the property be on the lease, or not allowing pets or loud noises.
In addition to a clause outlining the behavior that is considered a lease violation, the lease also must contain a right of re-entry clause, stating that the landlord has the right to file an eviction and re-enter the property if the tenant violates the lease provision. The right of re-entry clause is a prerequisite to an eviction action, except in cases where the tenant has failed to pay rent or when the tenant has committed a crime on the property.
If your lease does have a right of re-entry clause, then your landlord has the burden of proof. First your landlord has to prove how many nights your girlfriend has stayed over.
Second, the handwritten addendum to the lease is construed against the landlord because he wrote it. A clause saying you can have only 12 overnight visitors can be interpreted several ways. One interpretation is that you can have visitors stay overnight only 12 times total during your residency. That is probably what your landlord intended, but not what he wrote. Another interpretation is that you are limited to a maximum of 12 overnight visitors — so 13 visitors staying on the same night would be a lease violation. Yet another interpretation could be that you are limited to 12 different people who can stay overnight during your tenancy, and each can stay as many times as they want. Under Minnesota law, the court will read an ambiguous clause against the person who drafted it, and may likely determine that having your girlfriend stay over doesn’t violate the clause.
A judge has the discretion to rule that a lease violation is an insufficient cause for an eviction. For example, if a lease prohibits loud noises, and there is only one noise complaint against a tenant, that would be a nonmaterial breach of lease and is rarely an evictable offense.
In your case, if your girlfriend moved in with you, and there is an additional renter living in the unit but not paying rent, a judge may consider that to be a material breach of the lease. If your girlfriend visited or stayed over several times a week but didn’t live with you, a judge may declare that to be a nonmaterial breach.
You should review your lease for a right of re-entry clause, and check the exact wording in your lease, since “12 overnight visitors” could mean 12 different visitors and not the same overnight visitor. Then you should meet with your landlord. Most landlords will give you a warning before evicting you, since it can save them time and money.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.