Business Law 101 / Wrongful Evictions

By Albert L. Kelley

While Florida is considered a pro-landlord state, tenants are given some legal protections against wrongful evictions. What is a wrongful eviction? Any eviction that does not follow proper legal protocol. Florida law is clear that the ONLY way for a landlord to evict a tenant is through the Court process (This does not apply when the tenant has abandoned the property or surrendered it back to the landlord). Landlords may not use “self-help” or other improper methods to remove a tenant.

“Self-help” evictions take many forms and all are outlawed. Some landlords have tried to make the tenant’s life miserable by disconnecting air conditioning units, blocking parking, or refusing to make repairs to the property. Others have simply shut off utilities to the unit such as electric, water or gas. Others have threatened the tenant’s with bodily harm or threatened to contact employers. Some spread lies among other tenants to create negative feelings. The most blatant type of self-help eviction is when the Landlord actually goes on the property and changes the locks without the tenant’s notice, or even worse, when the landlord goes on the property and starts removing the tenant’s property from the apartment. The landlord also cannot raise rent or threaten eviction if the landlord’s actions are retaliatory for the tenant reporting the property for housing violations, reported the landlord to any government agencies, has organized a tenants association, or demanded repairs be made to the property (although the landlord may still evict a tenant if the tenant has acted improperly, such as not paying rent or failing to comply with their lease).

These eviction actions are not only wrongful; in some situations they are criminal. Landlords can be charged with assault and battery if they threaten a tenant, or with trespass, robbery or theft if they change the locks and remove property. In addition, Landlords can be civilly liable for slander or liable if they spread lies about the tenant, and can be charged with violating the unfair debt collection practices act if they contact an employer. Each of these has its own penalties and remedies (For example, a violation of the unfair debt collection practices act allows for a remedy of $1,000 plus legal fees. Slander and libel allow for punitive damages which can be even higher).

The Landlord-Tenant law also addresses remedies for the Tenant whenever a landlord tries to wrongfully evict a tenant. If the landlord proceeds with a self-help eviction, the tenant can sue the landlord for damages. Under the law, the damages for a wrongful eviction are three month’s rent, plus attorney fees. If the landlord repeats the violations a second time, the tenant may receive double the damages. The tenant can also receive an injunction ordering the landlord to stop harassing the tenant.

These remedies also apply to advance discrimination by a service member. Because the law allows service members to break leases if they get deployed, if a landlord refuses to rent to a service member, or changes the terms of a lease because they are a service member, the service member can sue for three months’ rent plus legal fees.

Al Kelley is a Florida business law attorney located in Key West and previously taught business law, personnel law and labor law at St. Leo University. He is also the author of “Basics of Business Law” “Basics of Florida’s Small Claims Court” and “Basics of Florida’s Landlord-Tenant Law” (Absolutely Amazing e-Books). This article is being offered as a public service and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. If you have any questions about legal issues, you should confer with a licensed Florida attorney.