A judge in Mississippi has been disciplined for improperly intervening in a landlord-tenant dispute by coaching the landlord to seek higher damages and an eviction order.
As a result, the judge has been ordered to pay $5,400 in restitution and court costs, according to a news report.
The dispute arose after the tenant bounced a check for $450. The landlord sued for $545 in damages. Rather than granting the request, the judge advised the landlord that she could claim up to $3,500 and also evict the tenant. The judge then allegedly entered the orders without asking for additional supporting evidence.
The ethics watchdog for the court accused the judge of acting as the landlord’s lawyer during the case. The tenant says she was forced to file for bankruptcy after the judgment was entered, according to the report.
The decision to reprimand the judge was based on a 5-4 vote, with dissenting justices indicating that the behavior did not give rise to a claim of bad faith.
The unusual aspect of this case is that the judge sided with the landlord. The lesson for other landlords: don’t count on it! Most landlords report the opposite experience: the tenant is offered free or low-cost legal assistant while the landlord struggles to prove the tenant deserves to be evicted.
What should not be overlooked here is that the landlord made a mistake. She asked for far less than she was entitled to. Had things gone differently — or typically — this landlord would have lost $3,000 and still would have had to dole out more money for a subsequent eviction.
In many small claims courts, lawyers are not allowed to represent the parties. But that doesn’t mean landlords shouldn’t be prepared. Preparing for a tenant dispute, including eviction, begins with tenant screening:
Avoiding an eviction in the first place is the best eviction strategy. Perform a tenant background check that includes running a credit report to confirm that the rental applicant is financially responsible. Don’t inherit someone else’s problem tenant. Also, run eviction and criminal histories to see if the applicant has made a habit of breaking leases. Speak with previous landlords to confirm that the tenant has a good rental history;
Keep tenants on track to make rent a priority by signing up to Report Rent Payments. That way, rent history can be added to the tenant’s credit report. When tenants are struggling financially, they tend to prioritize creditors based on the immediate consequences. A lease that provides a fee after the rent is five days late only encourages the tenant to postpone the rent payment and instead pay a more persistent creditor. By reporting rent history each month, rent becomes a higher priority because tenants have a strong incentive to pay on time — protecting their credit;
Bringing a tenant to court — even small claims court — is expensive and time-consuming. It’s especially frustrating when the judge goes to great lengths to protect or assist the tenant. The landlord typically is held to a very high standard, and one technical mistake can end in income loss. If the dispute can be resolved without the need for court intervention, that often is the least costly strategy. Note that the tenant in this case went bankrupt. The landlord could have ended up with nothing. While it seems offensive to allow a struggling tenant to break the lease, leaving voluntarily — and without damaging the property — may be a better alternative to housing a problem tenant for free while the eviction case is pending;
If a tenant dispute does go to court, hire an attorney or make every effort to come up to speed on the law. One sound strategy is to compile an evidence notebook that includes everything in the tenant file — the rental application, lease, move-in checklist and so on — in case that information is necessary at the hearing. Be prepared to carry the day. Chances are, the judge is not going to intervene.
This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).
Click Here to Receive Landlord Credit Reports.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.