Holding a landlord accountable

Image of a red stamp that reads, "Case Closed"

It was on her first day in her new rented house, after the frenzy of moving in, that the woman noticed the horrendous smell.

“It was horrible,” she said. “It was turning my stomach.”

The woman had hoped her new home would bring some peace to her life after a period of instability. It wasn’t shaping up that way. The smell was so bad and pervasive that she said it triggered a panic attack and she had to go to the hospital. She never spent a single night in the house, instead seeking shelter with family.

As she later investigated the source of the smell, she went to the basement, which she had not been able to inspect before she moved in. She found more than a foot of water. She notified the landlord, who took almost a week to have the basement cleaned. By that point the woman decided she’d had enough and notified the landlord she just wanted her money back so she could find a new place. The landlord never responded, so she contacted the AIDS Law Project.

Despite repeated efforts over several months by Malissa L. Durham, an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the AIDS Law Project, the landlord never responded. While researching the case in landlord tenant court, Malissa saw that the landlord had filed an eviction notice against her client. The landlord knew she had never stayed at the house, but still posted the eviction notice and court date on the front door. With the woman not at the hearing to defend herself, the judge granted the eviction and back rent to the landlord.

Malissa was eventually able to get a new eviction hearing, where the judge reversed the original order. Then Malissa successfully sued on her client’s behalf in small claims court to get her security deposit back. The landlord didn’t pay within 30 days, as required by law, so the woman was able to collect double the judgment, about $1,900.

“The AIDS Law Project was the first place I called,” she said. “If I’d done it on my own, I may not have gotten anything back.”