LANDLORD EVICTS THE TENANT.
A. WHEN CAN A LANDLORD EVICT A TENANT?
The landlord can evict a tenant for any one of three reasons:
- The term (usually one month or one year) for which the property was rented is over;
- The tenant is behind in the rent; or
- The tenant has breached (broken) some clause of the lease.
B. WHAT IS THE PROPER EVICTION PROCEDURE?
The Landlord-Tenant Law of 1951 points out the only method for a landlord to evict a tenant. The Landlord-Tenant Law does not apply to people who are buying a home or who live in a hotel or rooming house.
- The Eviction Notice - The landlord must give the tenant written notice of the reason for the eviction and the date that the landlord wants the tenant to leave. Caution: A tenant with a written lease should read the lease carefully to see whether or not he/she has given up the right to receive this eviction notice. The eviction notice must be personally delivered to the tenant or posted on the dwelling. An eviction notice, sent by mail is probably not enforceable. A written lease may state how many days notice must be given by the landlord before the landlord can evict. It the lease does not state how much notice is required, the general rule is as follows: If the term has ended, or it the landlord claims the tenant has breached the lease, the landlord must give the tenant thirty (30) days notice if the lease is for less than one year (this is usually month-to-month), and ninety (90) days notice if the lease is one year or more. If the tenant is behind in the rent and has an oral lease with the landlord, the landlord needs to give only fifteen (15) days notice between April 1st and September 1st, but thirty (30) days notice between September 1st and April 1st. It the tenant is not out of the property by the end of the eviction notice, the landlord must follow the procedure through the District Justice's office as set forth in paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 below.
- Complaint - The form that follows is a Landlord-Tenant Complaint. The landlord files the complaint with the appropriate District Justice's office, and the landlord receives a yellow copy of the Complaint. The pink copy of the Complaint will be served on the tenant by the Constable, who may hand the tenant the Complaint or tape the Complaint to the door of the property. The tenant will also get an orange copy of the same Complaint through the mail. The Complaint says that a hearing will be held at the District Justice's office on a particular day and time. The tenant should tell the District Justice if the tenant intends to come to the hearing and present his/her side of the case. The Complaint always requests possession of the property and may ask for back rent or damages as well. If the landlord is also suing for back rent or damages, see the section Suits for Money. If the tenant has a claim to file against the landlord, this claim, called a "counterclaim", may be filed before the hearing. Both Complaints will then be heard at the same time.
- The Hearing - At the hearing, both the landlord and the tenant will be put under oath to tell the truth. Either may have a lawyer to present his/her case. The landlord will then take the stand and present his/her case. When the landlord is finished testifying, the tenant can cross-examine the landlord -- in other words, ask the landlord any questions the tenant may wish to ask about the case. When the landlord is finished presenting his/her case, the tenant takes the stand and presents the tenant's side of the case. Again the landlord has the right to question the tenant after the tenant has presented his/her case. Both the landlord and tenant have the right to bring any papers, pictures, or other evidence which is important to prove their case. Either one can also bring any witnesses they may have.
The District Justice will decide whether or not the landlord is entitled to a judgement for possession of the property. If the landlord wins his/her case, he/she will get a judgement for possession and the tenant must move out. If the tenant wins, the tenant may stay. The District Justice may also decide whether or not either the landlord or the tenant owes the other any money. (See Suits for Money). If either the landlord or the tenant does not agree with the decision the District Justice reaches at the hearing, an appeal can be taken to the Dauphin County Court House within thirty (30) days after the District Justice makes his decision. Either the tenant or the landlord will need a lawyer's help in filing this appeal. If either the landlord or the tenant does not attend the hearing he/she will receive notice from the District Justice which says what the District Justice's decision was and on what date the decision was entered.
- Order for Possession - If the landlord wins a judgement for possession, which means the tenant must move, the landlord can then enforce the judgement. This means that no sooner than fifteen (15) days after the District Justice makes his decision and enters the judgement for possession, the landlord can have the constable give the tenant an "Order for Possession". This Order for Possession is a notice telling the tenant that unless the tenant is out of the property by a date set on the notice (no sooner than fifteen (15) days after the date the tenant receives the notice) the Constable or Sheriff can forcibly set the tenant and his/her belongings out of the house or apartment. This is a total of at least thirty (30) days after the judgement for possession was entered. If the Constable has to forcibly evict the tenant, and the tenant has not arranged for a place for his/her furniture and belongings, the Sheriff or Constable can store the furniture and belongings at a storage company at the tenant's expense. A tenant must pay any storage bill before getting his/her furniture and belongings back. If the tenant does not pay the storage bill or make arrangements regarding the furniture and belongings, they may be sold by the storage company to pay the storage bill.
- Non-payment of rent: Rent receipts are the best way to prove that rent has actually been paid. If the tenant used the repair and deduct procedure on page 15 the tenant must bring a copy of the receipt to the hearing. A tenant cannot defend an eviction action based on non-payment of rent because the tenant has withheld rent due to the landlord's failure to make repairs, unless the tenant has been placed on the City's Rent Withholding Program or unless the court finds the conditions of the home to be so bad that some or all of the rent did not become due under the new law of "implied warranty of habitability". A tenant can stop an eviction based on non-payment of rent by paying the rent due, plus court costs, at any time before the Constable comes to the door to put the tenant out on the street.
- Breach of the Lease: If a landlord has brought a complaint against the tenant and proved that the tenant has breached the lease, the tenant's only defense is to prove at the hearing that the tenant did not breach (break) the lease. For example: if the lease says "no pets" and the tenant brings a dog into the house or apartment, the landlord can claim that the tenant has broken or breached the lease. The tenant may be able to prove that the dog the landlord saw does not belong to the tenant, but perhaps belongs to a neighbor. Both the tenant and the landlord should take their lease, any other written papers, and any witnesses to the hearing to help establish their case.
- End of the term: At this time in Pennsylvania, there is no defense if the landlord claims that the term of the lease has ended. The landlord must give the tenant proper notice. The landlord's actions should not be in retaliation for any steps the tenant may have taken in the past to enforce the tenant's rights, such as reporting Housing Code violations
- Retaliatory eviction: If a tenant believes he/she is being evicted in retaliation for reporting Housing Code violations or exercising other legal rights, such as joining a tenant's organization, the tenant may want to see a lawyer. Although the general state law in Pennsylvania does not prohibit the landlord from evicting in retaliation, some local law may prohibit it and the law in many other states has changes so that the general law may change here, too.
C. WHAT ARE IMPROPER METHODS OF EVICTION?
Sometimes a landlord will tell a tenant to move right away, or next week, or threaten to get the Sheriff to throw the tenant out, change the locks, shut off the tenant's electricity, etc. The landlord cannot legally do anything to evict a tenant other than to follow the procedures through the District Justice's office set out above. If the landlord tries any of these other methods, the tenant should see a lawyer immediately to protect the tenant's rights. When visiting an attorney, a tenant must always remember to take the lease, rent receipts, notices, complaints, and any other written documents that apply to the housing situation.
D. WHAT DO "MONEY JUDGEMENTS" MEAN?
The landlord can sue the tenant for back rent or damages. The tenant can sue the landlord to recover the security deposit, or to recover excess rent paid. When the plaintiff (the persons who brings the suit), either landlord or tenant, is claiming that the defendant (the person sued) owes the plaintiff money, the procedure through the District Justice's office is the same as when the landlord is claiming possession of the property, from the time of the original notice from the District Justice's office through the hearing. A lawsuit in front of a District Justice can combine several different types of claims in one suit. For example, a landlord could ask for possession of his property plus back rent plus damages to the property. The landlord need not ask for all of these things in one suit. The landlord could ask only for possession of the property in one suit. This does not mean that he/she gives up the right to bring a later suit for damages or back rent. Also, it a tenant does not raise a counterclaim against the landlord's lawsuit, the tenant can file a separate lawsuit at a later date. It the lawsuit is for money only, and does not contain a claim for possession of the property, the form used is similar to the one when the owner is claiming possession of the property, except that the title of the complaint is different. Instead of "Landlord and Tenant Complaint" in the upper right-hand corner, the title will be "Trespass and Assumpsit Complaint".