In Florida, the written lease agreement is the first place that most landlords and tenants reference when the parties have a dispute. After all, the purpose of the document is to set forth the rights and obligations of the parties.
However, even though standard lease agreements address most common disputes between landlords and tenants, they can’t solve every problem nor do they address every dispute. In those instances, the only option is for the parties to seek court intervention by filing a lawsuit and asking a judge to resolve the controversy.
Common Lease Agreement Disputes That Are Resolved By Filing A Lawsuit
Residential lease agreement lawsuits are often filed over issues that have been fought many times before in other landlord-tenant disputes.
Here are some of the most common reasons why these lawsuits are filed:
1. Is the money paid by tenant to landlord considered rent, advanced rent or a security deposit?
We’ve discussed controversies between a landlord and a tenant involving the return of a security deposit before. See, Security Deposit Lawsuits in Florida and Can Your Landlord Keep Your Security Deposit?
However, the way issues are resolved change when the money being disputed does not involve a security deposit. At the time of signing a lease, a Landlord will likely ask for advanced rent in addition to deposits to secure the condition of the property and the possibility of default. After the tenant turns over this money to the landlord, issues may arise as to how and when that money is to be used by the landlord: was it rent, advanced rent, or a security deposit?
What is “rent” under Florida law?
The Florida Residential Landlord and Tenant Act has a specific definition for rent under a residential lease. Under Florida Statute 83.43(6), “rent” is defined as the periodic payments due to the landlord by the tenant in payment for the occupancy of the rental property pursuant to the lease (rental agreement). This includes any other payments due to the landlord from the tenant, as defined or designated in the written agreement as “rent.”
What is advanced rent?
Under the Florida the Florida Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, “advanced rent” is any money paid by the tenant to their landlord which is to be applied to a future rent payment period (week, month, annual). It does not include any rent paid by the tenant that covers the current rent payment period. See, Florida Statute 83.49.
An “advance rental” can also mean a promise by the tenant to make a rent payment for a future time period, whether the tenant actually uses the property for that period of time or not. See, Paul v. Kanter, 172 So. 2d 26 (Fla. 3d DCA 1965).
What is a security deposit under a residential lease agreement?
Florida Statute 83.43(12) defines a “security deposit” as any money that is held by the landlord as security for the performance of something under the lease (rental agreement). This may include things like monetary damage suffered by the landlord if the tenant breaches the lease before its expiration date.
2. Lease Options to Purchase
Sometimes a lease agreement will include a provision that is called an “option to purchase.” Here, the tenant has the option to buy the rental property from the landlord subject to certain conditions. Both the landlord and the tenant agree that the tenant may purchase the rental property if the lease provisions regarding the “option to buy” are met. See, Chhabra v. Morales, 906 So. 2d 1261 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2005).
This option to purchase is usually a part of the lease agreement. When the lease expires, the option to purchase provision usually expires too. As one court has stated, “… all rights to exercise the option to purchase expire when the lease terminates.” See, Arquette Development Corp. v. Hodges, citing Mr. Sign Sign Studios, Inc. v. Miguel, 877 So.2d 47, 50 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004).
In these controversies, the legal issues may involve whether or not the lease contained a valid “option to buy” as well as whether or not the tenant met its conditions in order to purchase the rental property. In Chhabra, for example, the court found that the lease agreement had no valid “option to buy” because there was no landlord signature or landlord initials in the contract evidencing the landlord’s agreement that the tenant could buy his property.
3. Other Common Litigation Related to Residential Lease Agreements
Often, tenants will file lawsuits under Florida landlord-tenant law because of harm they have suffered by the landlord’s actions or failures to act. While landlords are notorious for trying to limit their duties to the tenant and the property in the lease agreement, longstanding Florida law (statute and court precedent) exists to protect tenants from negligent and bad acting landlords.
Common controversies that result in tenants filing lawsuits as plaintiffs include:
a. Failure to Return Security Deposit – Security Deposit Disputes
Landlords are required to safeguard security deposit money. The landlord does not own that money; it is still the tenant’s property. The tenant has a right to its return at the end of the lease term unless otherwise provided for in Florida law. If the landlord does not return the security deposit, then the tenant must sue to get his or her money back. The landlord may try and defend that claim with arguments that he has a right to the deposit because of things the tenant has done or failed to do (like pay the last month’s rent, for instance).
b. Landlord’s Duty to Maintain and Repair
In Florida, the law protects residential tenants against “slumlord” behavior by landlords. Residential tenants have a legal right to a rental home that is clean, safe from harm, and reasonably comfortable. Under the law, this is known as habitability, which essentially means a landlord is obligated or has a duty to “warrant” that the property is, and will continue to be, livable while the tenant resides at the premises.
However, “habitability” does not mean luxury – it only covers the basics. The landlord has a duty to provide basic utilities, for instances, but not satellite TV. The rental unit must have things like functioning smoke detectors, but the landlord does not have to provide fire extinguishers (unless it is stated under the lease contract). Additionally, the landlord has to have working locks on the doors but he or she is not required by law to pay for a security system (again, that may be added by a provision in the lease).
The landlord breaches this duty of “habitability” if the rental property is not livable for a variety of reasons. For example, if the landlord fails to repair a leaky roof then the tenant can file a lawsuit, seek damages, and terminate the lease. Other issues that can lead to breach of habitability claim include things like mold; lead paint; electrical wiring problems; rats; sewage leaks; and failing heating units or air conditioners.
c. Breach of Quiet Enjoyment
When a homeowner rents their residential property in Florida, the tenant has the right to the “quiet enjoyment” of the premises. If the landlord acts in a way, or allows others to act in a way, that substantially impacts the tenant’s peaceful enjoyment of the premises, then the landlord is liable to the tenant for a breach of this right or covenant.
Under Florida law, when a breach like this occurs, a tenant can file a lawsuit against the landlord seeking damages and/or termination of the lease based upon a theory of “constructive eviction.” This is where a tenant is forced to leave because the premises are so altered by the landlord that is makes it uninhabitable. See, Coral Wood Page, Inc. v. GRE Coral Wood, LP, 71 So. 3d 251 (Fla. 2d DCA 2011).
In fact, the courts find this covenant to be so important, that landlords have been held to have breached this right where a landlord was simply remodeling the building where the tenant resided. In the case of Carner v. Shapiro, the landlord was found to have breached the duty of quiet enjoyment to one of his first floor tenants when all the landlord was doing was remodeling the upper stories of the building.
However, each situation is different. The key issue with this cause of action is the landlord’s control over the behavior that is impacting the tenant. For example, if there is a crime wave in the area where the tenant resides, a tenant cannot hold the landlord responsible for a breach of this covenant (perhaps, for other causes of action, like negligence security, but not for failing to provide a peaceful and quiet home). See, Fountas v. Ziegler, 305 So. 2d 864 (Fla. 3d DCA 1974).
Landlords can no longer act badly, and with impunity, based upon the fact most residential tenants do not have money to hire a lawyer. This is because tenants now have the right under the landlord-tenant law to recover legal fees, should they prevail in their lease agreement lawsuit against their landlord. When it comes to attorney fees and costs, tenants should also be aware of:
1. Provisions in Lease Agreements
Today, most residential lease agreements in Florida have provisions that allow for the recovery of legal fees for the prevailing party in a landlord-tenant lawsuit. If not, a tenant should make sure their lease has an attorney provision that provides for the “prevailing party” to recover attorney fees and not just attorney fees for the landlord.
2. Recovery of Attorneys’ Fees if Lease is Silent
If the lease agreement does not have language regarding attorneys’ fees, then Florida law may nevertheless provide for the recovery of legal fees in a rental agreement lawsuit. As discussed in Gaccione v. Damiano, there are circumstances under Florida Statute 83.48 that allow for the recovery of fees even if the lease is silent on the issue. Under the statute, a prevailing party in a Florida civil lawsuit to enforce a rental agreement can recover “reasonable attorney fees and court costs” even when the lease is missing language regarding payment of these fees, except for certain personal injury damages.
What Should You Do?
A good piece of advice if you intend to file a lawsuit against your landlord is to speak with an experienced Florida real estate lawyer to learn about your rights, because the law provides for the payment of attorney fees in the event the landlord is determined to have violated your lease agreement (which means, in many instances, the tenant will not have to pay any money to the lawyer, unless the lawyer wins the case).
Most real estate lawyers, like Larry Tolchinsky, offer a free initial consultation (over the phone or in person, whichever you prefer) to answer your questions.
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