Author: Alex Delaney
A new bill, that will amend current laws around landlord-tenant issues, has passed the Georgia Legislature and is awaiting the Governor’s signature. This bill has the goal of protecting tenants from retaliation by landlords for taking certain actions, such as evictions, when tenants request repairs. The bill allows tenants to establish a case of retaliation if they can demonstrate that the landlord has taken action to evict, or otherwise require the tenant to move.
This bill allows tenants to use retaliation as a defense to an eviction case. If the landlord has been found to have acted in a retaliatory manner, the landlord can be found liable for one month’s rent, $500 fine and court costs. The landlord may also be held responsible for the tenant’s reasonable attorney fees if the conduct is found to be willful, wanton, or malicious. The landlord may subtract any ledger balances from the penalties.
Before the tenant can establish a case of retaliation, they must first give the landlord notice of a problem and allow time for a repair to be made. If the landlord refuses, the tenant must make a complaint to a government entity, such as code enforcement, or a tenant organization. The claim must be valid and must be the landlord’s responsibility to repair.
Actions that put a landlord in jeopardy, under this bill, include: within 3 months after the tenant takes any action, the landlord files for eviction (without cause), or otherwise deprives the tenant use of the premises, decreases services to the tenant, increases the tenant’s rent, terminates the lease, or materially interferes with the tenant’s rights under the lease.
If an increase in rent, or a reduction in services, such as utilities, is under a lease escalation clause, or part of a pattern of rent increases, the landlord is not liable for retaliation. For example, Compass has a standard lease clause that allows the rent to increase by 3% at renewal time. This would not be grounds for retaliation as it is part of the existing contract between the tenant and the landlord.
It is also not grounds for a retaliation case if the landlord files eviction due to delinquent rent, intentional damage of the property, or any threats to safety, by word or actions, to the landlord, the landlord’s employees, or other tenants. Further, it is not grounds for a retaliation case if the landlord files an eviction due to a violation or a breach of the lease, such as holding over beyond the lease period, or beyond a notice of termination or intent to vacate, or by committing prohibited misconduct or criminal acts.
Whenever a change in the legal code occurs, there is a period of adjustment as the affected systems struggle to understand its implications and how to ensure it is applied correctly. What we believe will happen initially is a period where eviction cases experience a more careful review when there is any allegation of unresolved repairs. The burden of proof is on the tenant to establish a case of retaliation, but will clearly create a need for landlords to document carefully any issues around unresolved repairs. We suspect this may also increase the number of eviction cases that require a second hearing to allow the introduction of evidence to proof or disprove retaliation allegations. We will be monitoring any retaliation cases very carefully.