Under every state's laws, a landlord has certain duties to residential tenants, including the duty to provide a habitable living space and the duty to permit the tenant to use the property without interference. When your landlord breaches these duties, you may be able to sue the landlord for damages, which can include emotional distress damages.
Duties of a Landlord to a Residential Tenant
Landlord/tenant laws are generally state laws. Although there are federal housing laws that apply to every state, individual states can then drill down and create their own laws that may be more strict than the federal laws when setting forth illegal landlord practices.
Almost every state's laws provide that residential leases contain certain implied warranties or covenants related to the living conditions and the tenant's use of the property, including the implied warranty of habitability and the implied covenant of quiet enjoyment.
Breach of Warranty of Habitability
The implied warranty of habitability is a requirement that a landlord provide residential tenants with safe and habitable living conditions. The warranty is implied because the landlord is bound by it even if the lease agreement is silent on the subject.
When the problems are created by the tenant, the warranty typically does not apply. However, if something breaks and it's not the tenant's fault, the landlord must fix it. If the landlord fails or refuses to make necessary repairs, he may be in breach of the warranty of habitability.
What the Warranty of Habitability Includes
The warranty of habitability may differ in the details from state to state, but generally, it requires that a landlord comply with all applicable building and housing codes. Usually, this means that the landlord must make sure that the heat, electricity and water are all in good working order, and he must repair them if not.
The same is true for the building itself; the landlord must also fix leaking roofs and windows. In some states, pest control also falls under the umbrella of the landlord's responsibilities. If your apartment building becomes overrun with rats or cockroaches, your landlord may be responsible for getting rid of them.
If the lease purports to waive the warranty, a court will likely not enforce such a waiver, which means that if you signed a lease saying the landlord makes no warranties, the court will still find that the warranty exists.
Breach of Quiet Enjoyment
Most states also include an implied covenant of quiet enjoyment in all residential leases. "Quiet enjoyment" is a somewhat vague term that encompasses a lot of different things, including a tenant's right to live in privacy in his rented space without interference from the landlord. In some states, it covers even more than that, including a landlord's insistence upon charging rent despite a continuing breach of the warranty of habitability or even a landlord's attempt to evict a tenant without taking him to court first.
Damages for a Landlord's Breach of Warranty
If your landlord breaches the warranty of habitability or the warranty of quiet enjoyment, you may be able to sue her to recover monetary damages. Money damages may include recovery of any rent you paid while the poor conditions were in effect or money you paid to fix the damage yourself. In some states, such as California and Arizona, you may be able to seek emotional distress damages if the landlord's actions were particularly egregious.
Emotional Distress Damages
Emotional distress damages are a type of damage award that assigns a dollar figure to the victim's emotional distress. Infliction of emotional distress is a tort, which is an action (or inaction) someone takes that injures someone else. Personal injury lawsuits usually involve the tort of negligence, for instance, while defamation lawsuits will include either the tort of libel or the tort of slander.
Often seen as part of an award in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit, emotional distress damages are available in some states when a landlord creates a situation that causes severe emotional distress.
Emotional distress that rises to an actionable level under the law may be inflicted either intentionally or negligently.
Read More: What Are the Kinds of Emotional Distress One Can Sue for in a Lawsuit?
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Intentional infliction of emotional distress means that someone acted in such an outrageous manner that he caused you emotional distress severe enough to affect your mental health, and he did so with the intent of causing that level of distress. A court will review such a claim on a case-by-case basis, but certain condition must be present, which include:
- The offending party engaging in outrageous conduct.
- The offending party's purpose being to cause you severe emotional distress (or even physical harm that is likely to cause emotional distress), or the offending party engaging in the conduct with reckless disregard as to how it would affect you.
- The conduct actually causing you such severe emotional distress.
Intentional infliction of emotional distress is a severe remedy when physical injury is not involved and as a result, the conduct of the other party must be so horrible that it goes outside the bounds of human decency. A court in Maine, for example, allowed a woman to sue a cruise line for emotional distress when the crew of the ship harassed her and teased her so much that she barely left her cabin. Another example is a court in Georgia that allowed a suit by a couple who were subjected to a doctor's screaming and cursing while the husband was hospitalized.
Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress
Negligent infliction of emotional distress occurs when someone had a duty of care to someone else and breached that duty of care, causing emotional distress damages. In other words, it occurs when someone's negligence causes emotional distress to someone else.
Like other torts, state laws vary on what constitutes negligent infliction of emotional distress; all states require negligence and emotional injury, but they may also require that one or two additional elements apply, which include:
- Foreseeability, such that the person at fault should have foreseen that his action would cause the emotional distress. Most states require foreseeability.
- Physical impact, such that the distressed person was also harmed physically in some way. Few states have this requirement.
- Presence in the zone of danger, such that the distressed person was close enough to a serious accident or harm that she could have been injured and became fearful as a result.
Emotional Distress in a Landlord-Tenant Dispute
Landlords may be sued for emotional distress in certain situations. In Arizona, for example, courts have awarded emotional distress damages to tenants for their annoyance and discomfort caused by inhabitable living conditions such as inadequate heat and water and dangerous pests. In Massachusetts, a landlord's breach of quiet enjoyment caused by a landlord's miscalculation of rent and subsequent eviction action may lead to emotional distress damages.
If the landlord's actions are outrageous and done with the purpose of causing you emotional harm, or if she is merely negligent but should have known the negligence would cause emotional harm, you may be able to sue your landlord for emotional distress if you do suffer from it as a result, depending on your state's laws.
State laws vary on what conduct is sufficient to create a claim for emotional distress damages. A landlord's breach of the warranty of habitability or the covenant of quiet enjoyment may be enough, depending on your state's laws.
- Provident Law: Legal Headaches: Can Tenants Sue Their Landlord for Annoyance or Emotional Distress Concerning a Property’s Condition?
- Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute: Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
- Findlaw: NIED: Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress
- MassLegalHelp: Grounds for Filing a Civil Lawsuit
- Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute: Implied Warranty of Habitability
- Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute: Landlord-Tenant Law
- Psychology Today: Suing for Emotional Distress: "Outrageous!"
- Emotional distress cases very rarely go through. You can sue for violation of the lease or the "implied warranty of habitability," to at least recover the rent paid while there were poor living conditions.
- Contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The HUD office may be able to settle the claims right away, or they will refer you to an administrative hearing, so you don't have to go to court. However, if you plan on going to court anyway, don't sign a conciliation agreement.
Rebecca K. McDowell is a creditors' rights attorney with a special focus on bankruptcy and insolvency. She has a B.A. in English from Albion College and a J.D. from Wayne State University Law School. She has written legal articles for Nolo and the Bankruptcy Site.