When a serious conflict arises between an apartment resident and the landlord or management company, a lawsuit may be the only way to enforce a tenant's rights. Successfully suing an apartment complex requires knowledge of landlord-tenant laws and proof of a violation. You also must determine what you would like the court to do, such as award you a sum of money or force the landlord to otherwise fix the violation. Drafting the complaint, gathering your evidence and appearing in court are all a part of what can become an elaborate process.
Grounds to Sue
Make sure that you have grounds for a lawsuit. Some of the most common landlord violations include:
- Failing to provide a safe and habitable apartment or complex
- Breaking terms of the apartment lease
- Entering the apartment without the required notice
- Failing to return a security deposit
- Unlawful eviction
Drafting the Complaint
You must draft a complaint, sometimes called a petition. A complaint initiates the lawsuit and must be formatted in a way that conforms to local court rules. For example, list facts relevant to your claim and the law that you believe has been broken, in numbered paragraphs. You file this document with the civil court in the county where the rental property is located. You may be able to file in small claims court, depending on the amount you sue for. Small claims court limits range from $1,500 to $25,000, depending on the state. Small claims courts may be a little easier to navigate on your own if you choose not to hire an attorney.
Service of Process
After you draft and file the complaint, you must ensure that a copy of this paperwork is personally delivered to the landlord. In many states, either a sheriff or professional process server can serve the paperwork. Determining who to serve the papers on can be a bit confusing if the landlord is not the person who owns the property. Although state rules vary, typically, if the apartment complex has a management company that oversees the operation of the rental units, those employed to run the business are qualified to accept the paperwork.
The court may hold pretrial meetings and you might have to attend mediation to try to settle the case and avoid a trial. If this fails, the matter proceeds to a stage called discovery, in which you and the landlord exchange the information and the evidence you both intend to present at trial. Once discovery is complete and if you still haven't reached a settlement, you go to trial. During the trial, you present witnesses and other evidence that support your position. You can also ask questions of any witnesses that your landlord presents. Once the trial is complete, the judge or jury issues a decision.
Wayne Thomas earned his J.D. from Penn State University and has been practicing law since 2008. He has experience writing about environmental topics, music and health, as well as legal issues. Since 2011, Thomas has also served as a contributing editor for the "Vermont Environmental Monitor."