Landlord Didn’t Properly Dispose Of Tenant’s Personal Belongings
Written by: Alan Nochumson
Earlier this year, in Brown v. Premier Properties, 2014 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 64 (March 6, 2014), a trial court judge in Allegheny County highlighted the obligations of a landlord under the common law and now under the Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951 to allow a tenant to retrieve her personal belongings after the tenant loses possession of the leased premises by way of eviction proceedings.
In Brown, the landlord obtained a judgment for possession from a magisterial district judge against a tenant, Carol Brown, who was renting an apartment from the landlord. When Brown did not appeal the ruling handed down by the judge, the landlord had a constable serve an order for possession and notice to vacate on the tenant.
The date of eviction on the notice was handwritten and, according to the opinion, was not very legible. Brown believed that she had until Aug. 29, 2012, to vacate from the apartment, but, in actuality, the notice to vacate provided her until Aug. 27 to voluntarily leave the apartment, the opinion said. According to the opinion, Brown had secured alternative living arrangements and intended to vacate from the apartment by Aug. 29, the date upon which she believed the notice to vacate required her to relinquish possession of the apartment.
While at work Aug. 27, a constable reached Brown by telephone and informed her that she had been evicted and to contact the landlord’s property manager to make arrangements to obtain the rest of her belongings, the opinion said. The constable then changed the lock on the door to the apartment and provided the keys to the landlord, the opinion said. Over the next several days, Brown stated that she desperately attempted to retrieve her belongings from the apartment by reaching out to the landlord’s property manager and others but that they refused to provide her access to the apartment to do so, the opinion said. The landlord denied the existence of these attempts by Brown to communicate with the landlord.
Brown eventually sued the landlord for money damages resulting from the loss of her personal belongings.
After a bench trial took place, the trial court judge entered a verdict in favor of the tenant and against the landlord in the amount of $8,167.
The landlord appealed the verdict to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.
As part of the appellate proceedings, the trial court judge issued a memorandum opinion under Rule 1925(a) of the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure.
In the memorandum opinion, the trial court judge summarily rejected the landlord’s argument that “it had no common-law duty to return the belongings after the lawful eviction of” Brown.
The trial court judge first reasoned that the landlord had a duty to allow Brown to retrieve her personal belongings under the common-law tort of conversion.
Relying upon well-established legal precedent in Pennsylvania, the trial court judge pointed out that conversion can be committed if possession of another’s property is unreasonably withheld from one who has a right to that property.
Although Brown no longer had the right to maintain possession of the apartment, the trial court judge believed that the landlord had no right to withhold possession of her belongings, thus, converting them, so to speak.
The trial court judge next addressed the landlord’s argument that the terms and conditions of the lease absolved it from liability.
In Brown, the lease specifically provided that “all belongings left by tenant become landlord’s property to remove or keep as abandoned property.”
The trial court judge swiftly rejected this argument as well because he believed that the belongings were not “left” by Brown in the apartment. Instead, the trial court judge noted that the landlord refused to allow the tenant to retrieve the belongings after it obtained possession of the apartment.
In a footnote, the trial court judge concluded that the landlord’s disposition of the tenant’s personal belongings would have run afoul of the statutory regime recently created by the Pennsylvania Legislature through its enactment of 68 P.S. Section 250.505(a) of the Landlord and Tenant Act of 1951.
While that statutory provision had no effect on the outcome of the lawsuit brought by the tenant against the landlord in Brown because it was enacted after the damage to Brown’s personal belongings occurred, it now dictates how a landlord may dispose of a tenant’s personal belongings that remain in the leased premises after the tenant vacates or is evicted from the leased premises.
Under the law, the tenant has 10 days from relinquishing possession of the leased premises to contact the landlord and set forth his or her intention as to the personal belongings that remain in the leased premises. If the tenant states his or her intention to retrieve the personal belongings within the 10-day period of time, the landlord must retain the tenant’s personal belongings at a site of the landlord’s own choosing for a period of 30 days. If, however, the tenant fails to notify the landlord within this 10-day period of time, the personal belongings may be disposed of at the landlord’s discretion.
The statutory rights of the tenant to retrieve his or her personal belongings after relinquishing possession of the leased premises must be communicated to the tenant by the landlord either in the lease itself, in the writ or order for possession, or by way of separate written notice to the tenant, depending upon the circumstances.
If the tenant voluntarily vacates from the leased premises and the lease contains the statutory rights of the tenant, the landlord is not obligated under the law to provide further written notice to the tenant.
If the tenant is evicted from the leased premises, the writ or order for possession may include written notice of the tenant’s statutory rights in retrieving possession of his or her personal belongings that remain in the leased premises after the eviction takes place.
If the writ or order for possession does not include such written notice to the tenant, the landlord must separately provide such written notice to the tenant.
The written notice provided by the landlord to the tenant must include a telephone number and address where the landlord can be contacted and identify the current location of the tenant’s personal belongings in the possession of the landlord. The written notice can be served either by: regular mail to the tenant’s forwarding address, assuming the tenant provided the landlord with a forwarding address; regular mail to the former leased premises if the tenant does not give a forwarding address to the landlord; or personal delivery to the tenant.
In the written notice to the tenant, the landlord must advise the tenant that the tenant is obligated to pay any and all costs related to the removal and storage of the tenant’s personal belongings after 10 days from the date of the written notice.
If the tenant fails to retrieve the personal belongings during the 30-day period of time, the landlord is not required to retain the tenant’s personal belongings or if the tenant fails to respond to the landlord within the 10-day period of time following receipt of the written notice, the landlord is released of any responsibility to retain the tenant’s personal belongings and may dispose of the personal belongings accordingly.
If the landlord sells any of the abandoned personal belongings, any proceeds therefrom must be forwarded to the tenant by certified mail, provided. Nevertheless, the landlord may offset the costs of storage and removal of the personal belongings from the sale proceeds if the tenant fails to retrieve the personal belongings within 10 days of the date of written notice.
Reprinted with permission from the November 18, 2014 edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, email@example.com or visit www.almreprints.com.