Owner Liable for Self-Help Eviction
Facts: A Section 8 resident signed a one-year lease, which required her to pay a security deposit and $465 each month. Shortly after moving in, the resident thought she heard bats in the walls of her unit. She began to run the water for extended periods of time, including overnight, in an effort to scare the bats away. Also, at about the same time, the resident found the heat in her unit inadequate. To increase the heat, she turned on her gas stove and opened the oven door. She left the gas stove on with the door open for several hours at a time, including while she slept.
After receiving complaints from other residents that there was no hot water, the owner investigated and determined that the resident was running the water and heating the unit with her oven. The owner told her to stop, leaving several notes for her.
In the spring, the resident called the city complaining about bats. The city's housing inspector supervisor inspected the premises. He found no evidence of bats and couldn’t find how bats could enter the unit.
In the early fall, the resident again began to heat her unit with the oven and leave the water running for extended periods of time. On several occasions, the owner entered her unit to turn the gas stove and water off. According to the owner, her response was to simply turn the water and the gas stove back on.
On Oct. 8, the housing inspector issued an oral order to the owner to lock the doors to her unit. The inspector didn’t talk with the resident or attempt to contact her before making this order. The owner changed the locks on her unit and gathered her minimal belongings--an air mattress, a fan, and an alarm clock--and placed them outside the unit.
On Oct. 12, the inspector prepared a handwritten memorandum of the order, which was the basis of a more formal notice to vacate. The inspector didn’t leave a copy of the notice on the resident’s door, nor did the inspector mail or otherwise attempt to provide a copy of the notice to her.
The resident sued the city and the site owner for unlawful eviction and entry. The district court found that the owner was justified in entering the unit and changing the locks. "The only feasible way for the city to abate this emergency was to order that the locks be changed because it is clear that [the resident] otherwise would have continued to leave the stove on unattended." The district court found that in compliance with the order, the owner entered the unit and changed the locks. The court ruled that the resident was entitled to her security deposit, but denied all other relief. The resident appealed.
Ruling: The Iowa Supreme Court upheld a part of the lower court's ruling and sent the case back to trial to determine damages for the owner's bad-faith retention of the security deposit.
Reasoning: An ordinance authorized the city, acting through the owner, to cure a dangerous situation involving a resident who leaves the water and gas stove running for hours at a time. But the court ruled that it was beyond the scope of the city's order to abate the nuisance when the owner entered the unit for the purpose of seizing the resident's belongings and removing them from the premises. Further, the court decided that the owner's refusal to return the security deposit was done in bad faith. The owner knew he owed the resident the money, knew the resident had a pressing need, had no plausible reason for not paying it, and simply ignored the demand by the resident's attorney. Therefore, the resident was entitled to actual damages for the abusive entry and punitive damages for bad-faith retention of the security deposit.
- Lewis v. Jaeger, July 2012