How Do I Sue My Landlord for Emotional Distress Due to Poor Living Conditions?

By Fraser Sherman - Updated April 03, 2017

Suing your landlord or anyone else for emotional distress isn't easy. Legally "emotional distress" doesn't merely mean you're unhappy – it means you're distressed because of physical or mental harm you've suffered. However, if you don't qualify, don't despair. Your landlord is required to rent you a decent place to live. If you can prove he's fallen short, that's grounds for a lawsuit in itself.

The Elements of Emotional Distress

The best grounds for an emotional distress lawsuit are that you've actually suffered a physical injury due to your miserable living space. For example, if you fall and injure yourself because the stairs are so poorly maintained, you can try suing for emotional distress over the injury as well as damages for the injury itself.

The alternative, showing mental harm, is much tougher. You must show the landlord intentionally inflicted emotional distress – part of a harassment campaign against you, say – or that you've suffered physical damage from the emotional stress he caused you. Ulcers, headaches or a miscarriage are among the physical damages that can be linked to emotional stress. You need a doctor's note confirming your charges.

Tip

It's illegal for landlords to discriminate. If you can prove that white tenants or heterosexual tenants, for example, get better treatment and faster repairs, that's grounds for a legal action.

Warranty of Habitability

Rental property comes with an "implied warranty of habitability." Just by renting to you, the landlord makes an implied guarantee that the property is livable. While the legal standard for "livable" varies with state and local law, it generally means that the housing:

  • Has drinkable water and working electricity
  • Includes a working source of heat in cold weather
  • Meets the local building code
  • Is free of rats and vermin

Even if the lease says you're taking the property as is and the landlord has no obligation to make repairs, those terms are invalid. A lease cannot override the law. If the landlord doesn't maintain a livable a rental, you have grounds to sue. It's probably easier to sue over habitability than emotional distress.

Before Going to Court

Before you sue, you have to give the landlord a chance to fix the problems. If you haven't already notified her regarding the problems, do it now, in writing. Document the problems with photographs and keep a record of your communication, and any response from the landlord.

Warning

Minor repairs are not a habitability issue. A pipe that breaks and floods the apartments can make it unlivable. A bathroom tap with a very slight drip might not. If you break something yourself, the landlord may not be obligated to fix it.

If your landlord doesn't respond, research alternatives to a lawsuit. Some states allow you to "repair and deduct" in which you pay for the repairs yourself and take the money out of the rent. This requires following the law step by step, so be very careful.

Tip

If you can't afford legal advice, look for local attorneys who offer free aid to cash-strapped people. Tenant-rights groups may also be willing to give you some help.

Going to Court

The easiest way to collect money is to sue your landlord in small claims court. Cases are usually handled faster than in regular courts, and neither party can employ a lawyer, which saves money. However you'll have to meet your state's rules for a small claims case. There are limits to how much you can ask for, and some states won't allow you to sue for personal injury in small claims. Your county or state court website can tell you the rules.

About the Author

A Durham, NC resident, Fraser has written about law, starting a business, balancing your budget and fighting evictions, among other legal and financial topics.

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