Landlord’s Corner – Ohio Law and Self Help Evictions
There comes a time when an Ohio landlord may wish to regain possession of a residential apartment he has rented to a tenant. The only proper way to do this if the tenant refuses to leave is to file a statutory eviction action pursuant to Ohio Revised Code Section 1923.04. But some landlords take grave risks by trying to force the tenant out without the required legal process.
A “self help” eviction occurs when a landlord takes back possession of the rented premises without the permission of the tenant, and without resorting to the required legal processes. Where residential rental housing is concerned, self help evictions are illegal, pursuant to Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.15. Thus you cannot simply change the locks while the tenant is gone and throw all of his stuff into the dumpster behind the building. If a tenant can prove that you violated Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.15, you can be subject to a lawsuit for the tenant’s actual damages and attorneys fees.
The statute also prohibits a landlord from shutting off utilities in an effort to make the tenant leave, even if you don’t lock the tenant out. Some landlords make the mistake of turning off the water at the main or shutting off the power and assuming that since they have not actually excluded the tenant from the premises by locking him out, they are in the clear. But the statute specifically prohibits shutting off utilities in order to force a tenant out.
Further, a landlord cannot even threaten to lock the tenant out or shut off utilities. The statute clearly states that threats of a self help eviction are a violation of Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.15.
Further, the statute prohibiting self help evictions applies to tenants who have the right to occupy the premises and to tenants who no longer have the right to possession. So it is no defense to go to court on a 5321.15 lawsuit and tell the judge that the tenants were behind on the rent. If the tenant is in possession of the premises, you want him out, and he won’t leave, you have to go through the statutory eviction process.
What is a tenant likely to recover if you violate this section of the law? The Court may award the value of the tenant’s belongings (this could be tens of thousands of dollars if the Judge believes the tenant on what was removed). Judges will often not require a great deal of proof of the value of the lost items from the tenant because things like receipts and other proof would have been thrown out in the lock out.
You should also keep in mind that a claim for relief for violation of Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.15 may not be the only claim for relief in the lawsuit against you. You can also be sued for the common law intentional torts of conversion (the exercise of control over an item in a manner inconsistent with the rights of its owner which permanently deprives the owner of its value); trespass to chattels (the exercise of control over an item in a manner inconsistent with the rights of its owner which temporarily deprives the owner of its value); and trespass (the unlawful entry upon the property of another enjoying right to possession). Since these claims for relief are intentional torts, if the court finds liability and awards any actual (or even nominal) damages, the court may award punitive damages to the tenant as well as attorneys fees.
If you are the owner of property managed by another, you should also keep in mind that you can be held responsible for what your employees do if they are acting within the scope of your business. Thus if your rental manager robs a bank, you will not be responsible for that, but if your employee locks out a tenant and throws her stuff in the dumpster, you, as the owner of the property and the boss of the rental manager, will be a co-defendant in any litigation that the tenant brings.
To give you an idea of the damages which can ensue from violations of this sort, we need look no further than the case of Gordon v. Morris, 2001 Ohio App. LEXIS 338 (February 2, 2001) Greene Co. App. 2000-CA-69, unreported, a landlord changed the locks just before the end of the month upon learning that the tenants had shut off the utilities and removed most of their belongings. The trial court awarded the tenants only $ 96.77 in actual damages (they had paid rent through the end of the month but were deprived of the use of the apartment, and this was the prorated amount). But the trial court further awarded $1,000.00 in punitive damages and $1,462.00 in attorneys fees.
Ohio’s Second District Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s findings. So the landlord in this case got taken for a $2,559.27 ride through the legal system, and this does not count the costs of the landlord’s attorney. The next time you are thinking of trying to save a little money and time by not going through the statutory eviction process, think of Mr. Morris and the money he spent to lose his case.
In the case of Hall v. Lacheta, 1992 Ohio App. LEXIS 5945 (November 18, 1992) Tuscarawas App. No. 92AP020013, the landlord first threatened to lock out the tenant, and then, after receiveing a letter from a lawyer telling him that this was and would be a violation of Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.15, he actually did lock out the tenant without an eviction. When the police forced the landlord to leave, he returned shortly thereafter and placed a large sign in the yard informing the public that the tenant was on welfare and was not paying rent.
The trial court awarded the tenant $3,000.00 in actual damages and another $3632.00 in attorneys fees. But Ohio’s Fifth District Court of Appeals decided that this was not enough where attorneys fees were concerned, and that the testimony at trial justified a higher award to be based upon $75.00 per hour, rather than $40.00 per hour. Further, the Court allowed the tenant to recover for time spent at the hearing to determine the proper amount of attorneys fees and upon attorneys fees expended in collection activities. These amounts do not take into account the money spent by the landlord on his attorney. So it was an expensive afternoon’s work locking out that particular tenant.
You should note that Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.15 applies only to residential rental property, and not to property rented to a commercial tenant. Landlord’s renting out commercial property may make use of self help evictions to get back possession of their property if they can do so without a disturbance of the peace. But you still take chances here because a tenant may sue you for the common law torts I mentioned above, and if a court later determines that the tenant should not have been locked out, you will have trouble.
The wise landlord will always opt for a statutory eviction process when trying to get rid of a tenant who will not leave. It may take a little longer, and it may cost a bit in filing fees, but it brings certainty and insulates the landlord from the above claims. The same is true of tenants who have left you with an apartment in a condition such that you are not sure if they are going to return. If you have any doubts, just do the statutory eviction and sleep better at night.