Part 1 of this story can be found here.
A quick recap: I rented an in-law unit from "Kevin," an owner-operator beginning in 2017. Everything was cool until major maintenance was needed, at which point a strongly worded letter from a lawyer was required each time to elicit a meaningful response. Upon moving out, Kevin withheld almost the entirety of my security deposit, citing nonexistent floor damage and a severely inflated repair cost for a broken window pane, at which point I filed suit.
There were two issues in the case that required strategy from my end, the floors and the window. First the window:
- Kevin himself had quoted me a total repair cost of $40 before I gave notice to move out.
- The cost of the window pane itself from Kevin's vendor was $35, which was misrepresented as $189 on a forged or faked receipt.
Then, the floors:
- I had documentation (photos) that the floors were not damaged when I vacated the unit.
- I had evidence (texts) that the floors had not been repaired even at the time my deposit was withheld.
- The photos of the damage provided by Kevin did not indicate damage beyond normal wear and tear, which is by Texas law not the tenant's responsibility.
- The price of the floors used to calculate the withheld amount reflected an inflated unit price ($/sq. ft.) and an inflated area (nearly the entire unit, when the alleged damage was over 5-10 sq. ft.).
The case itself: Due to COVID-19, my hearing took place over a video call with Kevin and the judge. As is standard in small claims court, we both presented our cases and evidence to the judge, and then were allowed a period of cross-examination where we could question the opposing party. Despite being a landlord owning multiple properties, Kevin was totally unfamiliar with courtroom procedure, frequently interrupting the judge and repeatedly attempting to turn cross-examination into an angry diatribe (speech in cross-examination is limited to questions only), prompting the judge to intervene. As one might expect, the judge was adept at dealing with unprofessional behavior, and it seems she did not allow it to affect her evaluation of the facts. The hearing in total lasted 45 minutes.
A few hours later I was informed by an e-mail that the verdict was in my favor (well, mostly). Kevin was ordered to pay my court fees and the majority of the withheld amount (corresponding to the floor damage), although no punitive damages for wrongful withholding were levied. The withholding corresponding to the window pane remained in place. Here are a few lessons I learned from this experience:
- The landlord is not required to repair damages in order to withhold the deposit, it is simply counted as a reduction in value to the property.
- The landlord is free to unilaterally decide the cost of any damage that goes beyond normal wear and tear, up to a "reasonable" amount.
- "Reasonable" is broadly interpretable and is basically up to the judge.
- The forged nature of the receipt had no bearing on the case, since the landlord has no obligation to provide a receipt. The withholding is legitimate as long as the damage occurred and the amount withheld is determined to be reasonable.
- It was critical that I had photos of the condition of the floors taken on the move-out date.
For those of you reading who may find yourself in a similar situation, I would urge you not to give up and go through with filing a small claims case. Although it is an unfamiliar process for most, it is simple enough to figure out, and court costs are usually minimal (on the order of $100). Too often I've heard stories of tenants simply giving up on their illegally seized deposits because of a perceived power imbalance between them and the landlord. The court system was designed to level the playing field, and in my case at least, the system upheld its duty.