Q: I have attempted, and failed, to evict a problem tenant. This person constantly demanded repairs, complained about our policies, and bad-mouthed management to other tenants.
Finally, he did something that was prohibited in the lease — he parked in another person’s parking place one evening. Because my lease says that failure to abide by its terms and conditions is grounds for termination and eviction, I served him with a termination notice and took him to court when he refused to move.
Even though the tenant admitted parking there, the judge said the violation was minor and wouldn’t justify eviction. How can a judge rewrite a lease that the tenant signed, well aware of the consequences of a violation? –Walter H.
A: Courts normally hesitate to interfere with the provisions of a contract, as long as they are not against the law or so unfair as to “shock the conscience.” For example, no court will enforce a lease clause that prohibits the tenant from having visitors of a certain race — that’s against fair housing laws. And most judges would hesitate to uphold a clause that, for example, makes the tenant deliver the rent to the rental office at precisely 9 a.m. on the day it’s due, not a minute earlier or later. This is a trivial rule with consequences — the loss of the tenant’s home — that are manifestly unfair.
The provision concerning parking in your lease is reasonable. You can’t run an effective rental operation if tenants are parking willy-nilly — you’re apt to have a whole building full of disgruntled residents. But to evict someone on the basis of only one transgression is a bit harsh. Doubtless your judge thought you were taking advantage of a one-time lapse concerning a minor rule.
Landlords who jump on minor infractions as the basis for an eviction need to keep in mind that judges may also question whether their decision masks another, illegal motive. Did your judge suspect that you were using this parking violation as a way to get rid of someone who is speaking his mind about management (in some states, tenants are protected from retaliation when they engage in tenant organizing)? When basing an eviction on such flimsy grounds, you are practically inviting the tenant to suggest ulterior motives, which, if proven, could land you in legal hot water.
Your solution, pending any significant violation of the rental terms, is to wait out this tenant’s lease and then simply not renew.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of “Every Landlord’s Legal Guide” and “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.