Her Story: I Took My Landlord to Court and Won

As anyone who has lived it can tell you, off-campus housing can be a wonderful and horrible experience.  At Boston College, most students move off campus junior year because we are allotted 3 years of housing, and senior housing is the best.  It seems that everyone panics mid-fall sophomore year and rushes out to find affordable housing.

The house my three roommates and I lived in on Lake Street was just that: affordable. Though the “fourth bedroom” was an unheated and un-air-conditioned attic with no real flooring, and in spite of the fact that it had been the previous tenants’ “Frisbee house” (basically frat house) for at least three years before us, we agreed to sign the lease because “it was only one year out of our lives.”

That year consisted of us constantly calling and emailing our management company to report the fact that the heaters in my bedroom weren’t covered, the back door didn’t lock properly, and the chimney leaked.  These complaints were all answered in a lazy, haphazard fashion that would make any property owner blush.  But if our parents called the management company, they were suddenly very accommodating and punctual.  

Needless to say, we were quite happy to move back on campus at the end of August.  We spent all day moving out our furniture and cleaning. We swept and scrubbed the apartment, making sure to leave it cleaner than the day we moved in.  And then we waited for our security deposit: counting down the 30 days after our lease ended.

32 days later we finally received an envelope.  In it was a check for a little more than half our deposit and a document saying our deposit accrued $2.50 in interest, and then, under the heading Damages it said “Cleaning /Painting-- $1200.” This was supposed to be their “detailed receipt” of our entire deposit.  There was no bank statement of how exactly $2500 only accrues 0.1% interest, nor was there any description of what cleaning and painting service charges $1200 to tidy up an already clean apartment.

The next week, between classes, we called and emailed the management company every day asking for an actual detailed receipt and a bank statement.  When we eventually spoke to our property manager, she condescendingly told us that it was all up to the landlady.  Supposedly, the management company had nothing to do with the amount we were returned.  We tried to enlist the help of our school, but the off-campus housing office informed us that the head of the department had left, and hadn’t been replaced.  They were very sorry, but there was nothing they could do.  Finally, I called my Aunt Lisa, a lawyer in Chicago, for help.

She taught us how to file a small claim at the local courthouse.  In order to file we had to:

  1. Get the form: In some states the small claims form is available to print online, but Massachusetts is not one of those states. Instead, we looked up and went to our local courthouse and picked up the form from the clerk. The back of the form had detailed instructions for how to fill it out.
  2. Fill it out concisely and correctly: My roommates and I were all listed as plaintiffs since each of our names was on the lease. However, we picked one address and phone number to put down.  Our defendants were both the management company and our landlady. Then we asked for the $1200 plus statutory damages and $50 court fees.  In the claim section we listed our complaint with as much detail as possible.  We listed the date the lease started, and wrote in third person with ourselves as “the plaintiff” and the landlady and management company as “the defendant.”  We explained that our security deposit was not returned in a timely manner, the receipt was not detailed, and there was no bank statement for the security deposit. 
  3. Cite specific laws: We looked up the laws that had been violated here: Your state probably has a similar website.  Google “X state housing law.” By giving the chapter and section of the laws that we’re violated, we were showing the judge that we had done our research. 
  4. Attach relevant documents: When we returned our filled-out form, we attached a copy of our lease and our security deposit “receipt.” These also give credibility to your claim.  My aunt was disappointed that we hadn’t taken any pictures when we moved in or out, but at least we had some paperwork. 
  5. Notify the defendant: When we returned our form to the courthouse we were given a court date in January because the court had to allow for the defendant to receive notice.  The court will notify the defendant for you, but by sending certified copies of everything yourself, you’ll have more paperwork showing that you are serious about the case.  It also shows that you are willing to go the extra mile.