Our contact page is lit constantly with requests for legal help, most frequently on how to beat an eviction. We can rarely answer in more than a cursory way because we don’t give legal advice, but also because the circumstances are too variable to give a pat answer. Most people understand that when we don’t pay our rent, we get put out. But when we’re faced with an eviction, we always want to find a loophole.
It turns out there are loopholes. In some areas, code violations on the property can be used to good effect; in others, not so much. There may be statutes or ordinances requiring landlords to meet certain conditions before evicting their tenants. Since loopholes can vary by jurisdiction, legal research is the best way to find them.
The Need for Legal Authorities
At the end of the day, what you want is for a judge to rule your way. Nothing makes a judge respect your argument like legal authority, a reference to the law that proves you’re right on a legal matter. An argument without supporting legal authority is just your personal opinion, and the judge won’t likely agree.
Statutes are great if you can find one directly on point, but that’s rare because the facts in your case won’t often line up with those specified in a statute. Your state’s rules of civil procedure can help catch your opponent in a misstep, but those rules can get deep in the weeds for what often turns out to be a temporary delay.
Case law — the opinion of an appellate court in your state — is the most fruitful avenue for legal research. When you can tie the facts of your case to the facts of an appellate court’s decision, the outcome in your case should match the outcome of that decision.
A Mad Landlord
My first experience with the power of case law was on an eviction case many years ago. We were moving to Atlanta from out of state, so we spent a few days in the city to get our bearings and find rental housing. We located a beautiful home in a nice, quiet neighborhood. The house was being renovated after a 12-year leasing arrangement. It wasn’t move-in ready, but we spoke with the contractor on site and were impressed with the plans.
The best thing about the house was that the landlord lived out of state, so we wouldn’t see her often. We signed a lease, paid what she asked, and returned home to pack.
We arrived six weeks later with a moving van stuffed to the gills, only to find that the renovation had not been completed. In fact, some of the prior tenant’s belongings remained in the house. The property had not even been cleaned!
When we called the landlord to complain, she got ugly. She had us understand that we could either take it or leave it, literally. I remember her words exactly: “Well if you don’t like it, you can just move out!”
We took it well. Refusing to move our stuff into a nasty insecure house, we got a hotel for a few nights. We hired a handyman and house cleaner to put the house in order, and we moved in. The next month, we deducted those charges from our rent payment.
The landlord howled and threatened to evict us, but we didn’t budge. While our landlord-tenant relationship was ruined, we’d chosen a property that worked for us and settled into it. Our position on the rent mirrored her position on the move-in condition of the property: She could take it or leave it.
She chose not to cash that check. We sent her a full rent check the following month, but she filed for eviction over the rent deductions.
The Case Law That Beat An Eviction
Evictions move fast in Georgia. We were served with papers that said a hearing was scheduled in three weeks.
We were confident, at least in the beginning, that a judge would see things our way. We had a lease that spelled out the renovations to be completed before the move-in date. We had time-stamped pictures of the property as we found it at move-in. We had receipts for everything we’d deducted from the rent. It seemed clear to us the landlord had violated a contract.
But did any of that apply to an eviction case? We didn’t know.
We were doing okay financially, but like most households, there was no line for “lawyer” in the budget. So I called the local legal aid office. It took less than 3 minutes for a screener to tell me our income didn’t qualify us for help. I needed some basic information on how to beat an eviction, not legal representation, and I asked if she would let me speak with a lawyer. She couldn’t put me through to anyone.
We prepared for our day in court, but we were concerned about losing our new home. As time grew near, we started searching online for information on Georgia evictions. There were sad stories everywhere, and policy papers on the need for eviction reform, but not much practical legal help.
Rogue that I am, I started dialing extensions at Atlanta Legal Aid, trying to bypass the screener to speak with a lawyer. I finally reached one, a nice young man who sounded fresh out of law school. And while he tried to get me off the phone, he wasn’t nearly as firm as the screener.
I’m not ashamed to say I begged. It worked. He let me ramble on awhile and listened to my sad tale. I told him how the landlord had breached our contract. He told me the judge wouldn’t hear an argument based on the condition of the house at move-in.
Finally, he heard something that piqued his interest. When I told him we’d paid full rent the month after we took those deductions, he asked if the landlord had cashed that check, and if we could prove it. Yes, I answered, the landlord had cashed the check. And yes, our bank would provide us the cancelled check.
This young lawyer — I wish I could remember his name to thank him publicly! — told me to attach a copy of that cancelled check to the eviction answer form, and to state on the form that the landlord had cashed a rent check for the month following the so-called “default” she was complaining about.
He also told me to cite a Georgia appellate case to support my argument. The case said this:
Where the landlord accepts rent from the tenant after the default but before the dispossessory proceeding, the landlord then has no right to institute dispossessory proceedings against the tenant during the ensuing period on account of the tenants’ arrears in the payment of past due rent. Kunian v. Mangel Stores, 140 Ga. App. 244, 230 SE 2d 492 (1976).
He even spelled out the citation to make sure I got it right, with legal formatting and all. He promised we wouldn’t need the lease, the pictures, receipts or anything else to persuade the judge to rule in our favor.
The Power of Case Law
He was right. We followed his instructions and mailed our answer to the court, with the cancelled check attached. When we arrived for the hearing, we found a courtroom packed with hundreds of people, all with eviction cases of their own.
The judge gave the typical lecture on what did and didn’t count — your rent payment mattered; code violations and loss of a job did not.
He called the cases one by one from a huge stack of folders on his bench. Despite his lecture, many people argued that they’d lost jobs or had emergency expenses that left no money for rent, or that their properties were unlivable due to code violations. Some just asked for more time to pay.
The judge kindly explained that he couldn’t allow them to remain in their homes based on those defenses, and he signed eviction orders — 7 days to move or be moved.
Finally, the judge called our case. As we rose from our seats, he started reviewing the paperwork, then started swinging his head back and forth. “The plaintiff has not stated a proper cause of action,” he said. “Case dismissed!” He checked a box, signed his name, and sent the bailiff down the aisle toward us with a copy of the order.
Order in hand, we shouted, “Thank you, your honor,” and turned to leave.
The landlord yelled, “But they were short!”
“Please stop talking,” said the bailiff to our landlord, handing her the judge’s order.
And it was over.
The landlord was gracious in defeat. We had no problems with her for several years, until she hired a professional to come for us again. (She lost then too, but that’s another story for another day.)
We learned a valuable lesson in this case about the value of legal authority. One appellate decision and a cancelled check had the power to overcome a “default” and stop an eviction in its tracks.
Since then, we’ve learned a lot about legal research, and we’ve used it to support our arguments in many other cases. No doubt I could find a case like Kunian v. Mangel Stores if I needed something similar today, but back then I had no idea how persuasive such cases were, or how to go about finding them.
That’s why we’ve built legal research tools into Case Manager, our subscription service for self-represented litigants. There’s little point to crafting good arguments with our automated legal document templates if you can’t support your positions with legal authority. And nothing makes a judge respect a self-represented litigant like case law.
Have you had to beat an eviction? Did you have any luck finding legal authorities in your jurisdiction? Share in comments below.