A recent county court decision in an eviction case reveals how judges can view and rule on landlord-tenant issues arising out of an eviction lawsuit and in light of Florida Statutes (FS), ch. 83, pt. 2. The highlighted case is Cobb v. Pittman, 2018CC3251 in Bay County before Judge Joe Grammer.
In this case, the landlord sued the tenant for residential eviction under FS 83.56 for failure to pay rent. The landlord attached a 3-day notice to pay or vacate to the complaint, wherein he had demanded payment of rent in the amount of $850 ($650 was the monthly rent obligation — the landlord did not specify how he calculated $850). From the defendant’s standpoint, there were legitimate defenses regarding the legal sufficiency of the notice (e.g. lack of specificity, premature delivery, payment, etc.).
Before the tenant could raise defenses at trial, the tenant was required to post the disputed rent, as alleged to be owed in the eviction complaint, into the court registry pursuant to FS 83.60. The tenant filed a motion to determine rent, attaching the document supporting his motion. Here’s why the motion was filed and what happened.
Motion To Determine Rent
The tenant was on a written month-to-month lease agreement, and he resided there for over a year. During the term of the tenancy, the tenant claimed that the landlord had allowed the tenant to make improvements to the property in exchange for rent payment. This arrangement was never put into writing or signed by the parties, but according to the tenant, it was the norm of their actions, and as such, the tenant came to rely on the landlord’s actions.
As it happened, Hurricane Michael struck the area of the rental property on October 10, 2018; consequently, problems arose concerning the electrical power panel that regulated the electrical power supply to the home. According to the tenant, he verbally informed the landlord of the problem, and the landlord told him that “he was on his own” as the landlord did not have the money to repair the damage. The tenant did not provide a 7-day written notice to cure. (Note: these facts opened up a legal issue in this case; to wit: whether the tenant is still bound to provide a 7-day notice to cure when the landlord preemptively informs the tenant he will not cure the known defect. The court did not rule on this issue.)
Afterward, the tenant hired a company to repair the electrical panel. The tenant introduced an invoice into evidence at the hearing showing that he paid $1,950 to have the damaged electrical panel repaired. The invoice was dated for November 2, 2018 (the same day that the 3-day notice to pay or vacate was dated).
The tenant stated that he informed the landlord of the repair cost, as the tenant believed that he was entitled to rent credit for the repair made to the property, based on the landlord’s prior actions. However, the landlord refused to give him credit for the $1,950. The tenant did not have the money to pay November and December rent because he paid to repair the electrical panel.
While the eviction lawsuit was pending, December’s rent accrued, bringing the alleged rent owed to $1,500. As one might imagine, the landlord also delivered a notice to terminate the month-to-month tenancy after the eviction lawsuit was filed, thereby ending the tenancy on December 31, 2018.
During the rent determination hearing, the judge suggested that when the landlord delivered the 3-day notice to pay or vacate, he had terminated the month-to-month tenancy, thereby rendering the tenancy terminated 30 days from the date of delivery of the notice. This author disagrees with such a legal determination and believes such a ruling would be reversed on appeal because a 3-day notice to pay or vacate clearly is not terminating the month-to-month tenancy; only a notice delivered to the tenant pursuant to FS 83.57 can serve to terminate a month-to-month tenancy, and the notice must be given 15 days prior to the end of the month.
At the rent determination hearing, the court allowed the tenant’s attorney to call the tenant to testify. The tenant testified about the landlord’s past actions regarding giving the tenant rent credit for the tenant’s making improvements or repairs to the home.
This author has seen county judges preclude a tenant from introducing evidence, including testimony, from a tenant regarding rent payment. This author opines that tenants can be permitted to produce evidence of rent payment to be applied at a rent determination hearing where the tenant has made a prima facie case for applying rent credit in his motion to determine rent. See e.g. Rowe v. Macaw Holdings I, LLC, 4D17-2645 (4th Dist. T. of App., June 6, 2018) (ruling “Where there is a dispute as to the amount of such adjustments, section 83.232(2) requires an evidentiary hearing prior to an order requiring the posting of the adjustments in the court registry”).
The plaintiff’s attorney attempted to undermine the credibility of the tenant’s $1,950 expenditure by questioning him regarding the lack of a permit being pulled to perform the repair and the electrician not having an electrician license. The tenant noted that the government offices were closed regarding permits and that the electrician was licensed. No other evidence was introduced in this regard, and this cross-examination did not appear to dissuade the court from considering the tenant’s testimony, and the landlord did not present any evidence during the hearing.
There was also an issue raised regarding a lease agreement provision stating that rent shall abate during the time that the premises are damaged due to a natural disaster, rendering the home uninhabitable. Without electricity in the home, this lease provision applied; therefore, the tenant was entitled to an abatement of rent from October 10, 2018, until electricity was restored, which the court did in his order by reducing the rent to be deposited into the court registry.
Rent Credit For Repairs
In the end, the court ordered the tenant to pay $1,300 into the court registry, and not the full $1,500 as requested by the landlord.
A big takeaway from the court’s order is the court’s giving credibility to a tenant’s argument that tenant repairs could constitute rent payment, based on the actions of the landlord; namely, that the landlord gave rent payment credit to the tenant for repairs or improvements made. But the court did not apply the $1,950 payment towards rent payment because of a specific fact: the tenant did not get the landlord’s permission to apply the expenditure towards rent payment PRIOR to the expenditure, as was customary with the landlord according to the tenant.
The court’s ruling necessarily implies that had the tenant gotten the landlord’s permission prior to the expenditure, the court may have applied the $1,950 towards the tenant’s rent payment; and accordingly, the tenant would not have had to post any additional rent to raise his defenses at trial.
Actions Versus Lease Agreement
The court’s finding on the rent credit is notable and far-reaching because the lease agreement provided that the tenant was not allowed to make any repairs or alterations to the property without the prior written permission of the landlord. There was nothing in writing from the landlord to give rent credit at any time, but the court still considered the landlord’s actions when considering what the tenant owed in rent.
Notably, the court did not cite this lease provision (i.e. the lack of written permission) to foreclose the tenant’s argument that he was entitled to rent credit. The legal reason for this is not stated in the court’s order, but it seems apparent that the legal reason is that a written contract provision can be waived by the parties when the parties’ actions reveal a different intent and when the parties act in reasonable reliance on their verbal or non-verbal agreement.
Among the lessons to be learned from this case, the following are lessons both landlord and tenant should learn.
- Prepare your legal notices correctly and with the advice of counsel. A defective notice provides defenses to the tenants and can end up costing \ a lot of wasted time, money, and energy.
- Do not act contrary to the lease agreement. Your actions may be taken as a waiver of a lease provision and create a new agreement with the tenant.
- For any agreements that are not anticipated by the lease agreement, put them in writing and signed by the parties. Hire an attorney to help, as your rights and obligations are affected by the agreement.
- Maintain the premises as required by FS 83.51 and the lease agreement. If you do not, the tenant has remedies to either withhold rent or terminate the lease where the violations are material and the tenant gives proper notice.
- Where the premises have been damaged by a disaster, do your best to hire a contractor to inspect and repair the damage. Do not leave such matters to the tenant. You may incur even more damages and risk greater liability.
- If you allow rent credits in exchange for tenant repairs, detail the terms and conditions in writing, signed by the parties, which allow you to enforce the agreement if the tenant breaches it.
- If your landlord makes an agreement with you, put it in writing and get the landlord to sign the terms and conditions in writing. Have an attorney help, as your rights and obligations are affected.
- If your landlord gives you rent credit for improvements to the property, have the landlord sign the receipt of the rent credit. Be sure to identify the amount of credit, the month of rent for which it is applied, and any balance of rent owed after the credit is given.
- If the property is damaged, especially rendering the home uninhabitable, give the landlord written notice of the damage and specify the damages to the best of your ability.
- If the damages are such that the landlord is obligated to remedy under FS 83.51, provide the landlord with a written 7-day notice to cure stating the defects in detail. In the notice, the tenant must state that the failure to cure the defect will result in the tenant withholding rent or terminating the lease. Note: if the property is damaged by a disaster, not due to the tenant’s fault, the landlord may have grounds to terminate the lease unilaterally. Tenants should be prepared to receive such a notice if the landlord is unable to remedy the property within seven days.
- Do not attempt to perform repairs to a home that requires a license and code compliance. You may end up causing damages to the home or injuring persons if you do.