Landlord Entry to Rental Property
Can a Landlord be Sued for Entering a Tenant’s Home without Notice?
Landlords who enter a tenant’s rental apartment (or house) without notice do so at the risk of alienating the tenant—and violating his/her right to privacy. Whether the tenant can realistically sue for unlawful entry depends on the circumstances. In most cases, it may not be worth the tenant’s time or trouble. Even so, it is a good practice for landlords to be cognizant of what a tenant is likely to consider intrusive behavior, just as it is important to know the legal parameters for entry and what is likely to be considered unlawful access.
Legal Reasons Landlords May Access Rental Property
Michigan has no state statute that sets clear parameters as to when a landlord’s entry is (or is not) permissible. Nor does Michigan statute specifically define a tenant’s right to privacy. In the absence of statutory law, common law (relevant court decisions) serves as a guide post. Under Michigan common law, a tenant has the right of “quiet enjoyment” of the rental premises. Quiet enjoyment includes protections against a landlord’s unreasonable entry. Since unreasonable entry isn’t lawful, it is considered to be trespassory. Trespassing is both a tort and a crime.
On the flip side, reasonable entry is permitted. But what is reasonable entry? Obviously, a landlord is legally permitted to enter an apartment or rental unit when the tenant gives permission. The same is true when a real emergency develops—one that threatens life or property, such as a fire, cracked water pipe, or serious gas leak. Also, any landlord who reasonably believes that the tenant has abandoned (permanently departed without giving notice or returning the key) the property may legally enter without giving notice. In the latter case, it is advisable to attempt some form of 24 hour notice before entry.
There are other scenarios in which a landlord’s entry is permitted with notice. These situations include entry for needed repairs or improvements or to show the property to prospective tenants or purchasers. Generally, the landlord must enter only at a reasonable time of day, after giving at least 24 hours of notice. Sometimes, a tenant might be amenable to a shorter notice period. This is especially true when a quick repair is needed and the contractor (or repairman) is available in a shorter time frame. Here, communication between the landlord and tenant is essential to maintaining trust and efficiency.
A tenant’s failure to cooperate with his/her landlord’s reasonable attempts to enter the rental unit may lead to mistrust and disputes, perhaps culminating in an eviction. Even so, such uncooperative behavior does not grant the landlord a free pass to enter. Even where a tenant has clearly violated a lease provision, the landlord is still prohibited from unreasonably entering the rental premises. A tenant who violates a lease might eventually be evicted. Even so, that tenant maintains legal control of the premises until the sheriff or bailiff performs the actual eviction. Until that time, the landlord remains bound by tenant’s rights to quiet enjoyment. Please see the RPOA Eviction Timeline & Notice Forms chart for more information on the types of evictions, forms used, waiting periods and typical timeframe it takes for each type of eviction.
Although the state of Michigan has no statute covering reasonable entry, local governments might. Be sure to check applicable municipal and county ordinances. In the absence of any such regulations, a judge or jury decides what is reasonable entry in Michigan—on a case by case basis. Again, this article simply serves as a guideline for best practices.
Invasion of Tenant Privacy
Landlords (or property managers) who enter a tenant’s home without that tenant’s consent (or knowledge)—or without providing advance notice, may soon find themselves in court. Most tenants—especially those who generally enjoy living in their rental property—try to work things out with the landlord. In return, most landlords are receptive to their tenant’s concerns. The first step usually involves an oral representation of the problem. If this form of communication doesn’t resolve the conflict, it is usually followed by a demand letter. Often, demand letters expressly threaten legal action if the tenant’s rights to privacy continue to be violated. Landlords should take these demand letters seriously; going to court is expensive and should be considered only as a last resort. As long as the tenant’s complaint is reasonable and fixable, a little effort may go a long way in avoiding time-consuming (and expensive) litigation.
Legal Grounds for Suing
Tenants may sue their landlord for money damages on one or all of the following legal grounds:
Invasion of Privacy: interfering with the tenant’s right to be left alone. This includes spying on the tenant, interrogating the tenant’s visitors, knocking on his/her door at odd hours to see who answers, or entering without legal justification unbeknownst to the tenant when he/she is not at home.
Trespass: entering the rental unit without the tenant’s consent or proper authority, and/or without giving proper notice.
Breach of Implied Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment: interfering with the tenant’s right to undisturbed use of their home (leases often include a “covenant of quiet enjoyment” clause in which the landlord is obligated to ensure that tenants live undisturbed).
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress: perpetuating a pattern of intentional acts that end up causing serious emotional consequences to the tenant.
Repeated landlord (or property manager) abuses of a tenant’s right of privacy may provide that tenant with a legal excuse to break their lease or end the tenancy early—without incurring any liability for further rent. If the landlord later attempts to sue the tenant for the rent, the tenant can use the repeated intrusions of privacy as a valid defense.
Recovering Money Damages
Tenants who sue their landlord for unlawful entry (or invasion of privacy) may experience difficulty in proving much in the way of monetary damages. In short, that tenant needs to prove to a judge how a landlord’s invasion of privacy was harmful. Not all cases are created equal. Those tenants who can demonstrate a repeated pattern of illegal entry—after and against written notice—will fare better than those who cannot. Sometimes, just one or two especially outrageous acts by the landlord may be enough to ensure a victory in court.
Often, it comes down to the evidence offered. Emails or letters sent to the landlord regarding the privacy violations may prove especially damning, as will testimony from other tenants who attest to the landlord’s intrusive behavior.
Small Claims Court
Michigan tenants (and landlords) seeking modest damages may seek action in small claims court. Small claims courts are designed to provide a court that accessible to people without the aid of attorneys to settle monetary disputes of $6,000 or less (or to acquire some type of fair settlement). Generally, people do not need to know anything about the law to bring a suit in small claims court. Here, lawyers are not allowed to argue cases for clients. Plaintiffs and defendants simply state their cases in their own words. After both sides have been heard, the judge or magistrate decides who is right.
The judge’s ruling in small claims court is final and enforceable. It cannot be appealed to a higher court. However, if the case is heard by a magistrate, either the plaintiff or the defendant may, within seven days from the issue date of the judgment, ask that the case be reheard by a judge if the magistrate’s decision is unfavorable. For more information on small claims court, please see the State of Michigan website.