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Know Your Rights: Can I get out of my lease during COVID-19? (Article + FAQs)

Authored By: Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (New Orleans office) LSC Funded
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Current As of April 20, 2020. This is a rapidly changing situation. Please check back for updated information.

 

During the Covid-19 crisis, some tenants may need to terminate their lease agreements early due to health issues, safety concerns, family caregiving responsibilities, or changed financial situations. This FAQ addresses risks and options for terminating your lease agreement early, otherwise known as “breaking your lease.”

 

The law has not changed to make it easier for you to get out of your lease.

 

However, you may have some options under existing law.

 

Note: There is no court or administrative proceeding you can go through to get out of your lease in Louisiana. However, you can create a good paper trail in case your landlord tries to hold you liable for breaking your lease. The letters and documentation suggested below could be shown to a judge in the event that the matter ends up in court. Please note a judge will make a final decision on whether you broke your lease for a legally valid reason, and there is no way to guarantee a final result.

 

Read your options below.

Your Options, the Risks, and Finding Legal Help

Option 1: Talking to your landlord. +

Your first option is to speak to the landlord and ask if they would be willing to end the lease early. If they will agree to let you leave the lease early you should get the agreement in writing and you and the landlord should sign it. If your landlord signs an agreement ending your lease early you may still be able to get your security deposit back. 

 

Sample early lease termination amendment

Option 2: Using the "Act of God" Clause in your lease (if one exists). +

Read through your lease. If there is a section that includes the words “force majeure” or “act of god,” see if that section gives you the option to break the lease in the event of an unforeseen event outside of your control like a hurricane or pandemic. If there is a clause like this, bring it to your landlord’s attention and/or write a letter explaining that you are terminating your lease agreement early based on this clause. Keep a copy of the letter for your records.

Option 3: Using the law on "Fortuitous Events" that make it impossible for you to pay your rent. +

If you lost income due to Covid-19 and it is impossible for you to meet your obligations under the lease, you may be able to make an argument under La. Civil Code article 1873. This law can be used when it is “impossible” to do what you agreed to do in your lease, like paying rent. Specifically, the law states “An obligor is not liable for his failure to perform when it is caused by a fortuitous event that makes performance impossible.” In other words, due to an event beyond your control (in this case the COVID-19 pandemic), you can no longer work and so cannot pay the rent you agreed to pay.

 

Issues that will stop this argument from working:

 

  • Read through your lease. If it says in the lease that you the tenant “assume the risk of such a fortuitous event” then you may not try this argument.
  • If you were already behind on rent before the COVID-19 crisis began then you may not try this argument.
  • If you are getting expanded unemployment benefits and/or a stimulus check, it may not be impossible for you to pay your rent, and therefore article 1873 might not apply.

 

Sample Article 1873 letter

Option 4: Getting a "reasonable accommodation" under the Fair Housing Act if you have a health condition. +

The Fair Housing Act requires that a landlord provide a “reasonable accommodation,” or exception to normal rules and policies, for a person with disabilities, when they need the accommodation as a result of their disability. 42 U.S.C. 3604(f)(3)(B).

 

A disability is a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

 

An accommodation is reasonable if it does not cause the landlord an “undue administrative or financial burden,” i.e. if it does not cost the landlord too much money and or time and effort.

 

If you have Covid-19 or an underlying chronic health condition that make you more vulnerable to Covid-19 infection, like diabetes, a respiratory condition, or an immune system disorder, and you need to move to avoid possible infection or seek medical treatment, you could request early lease release as a reasonable accommodation for you disability.

 

If you have anxiety, depression, or other mental health disabilities, and the you need to move because your disability has been aggravated by your current living situation, you could request an early lease release as a reasonable accommodation

 

Note: You do not need documentation from a medical professional to make the initial reasonable accommodation request. But the landlord is entitled to ask for verification of your disability and the need for an accommodation if it is not obvious to them. If your landlord asks for verification, you must be able to show documentation from a qualified professional - a doctor, nurse, social worker, or therapist – stating that you have a disability and need to get out of your lease early because of your disability. Your landlord is usually not entitled to detailed medical records.

 

Option 5: Legally moving for safety reasons. +

Quarantine and “shelter in place” can be a dangerous time for survivors of domestic violence.

 

If you live in government subsidized housing like Section 8, public housing, or tax credit housing, and your home is unsafe for you because of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, or sexual assault, you may have a right to transfer to a new apartment. The law that allows you to move for safety reasons is the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”).

 

When you request the transfer, you may be required to provide verification in the form of:

  • A HUD certification form that you sign; HUD 5382 Form
  • A document signed by a service provider, attorney, medical professional, social worker, or therapist stating you are a survivor of domestic violence;
  • A protective order; or
  • A police report.

 

If you rent from a private landlord, pay full rent, and your home is unsafe for you because of domestic violence, you may be able to get out of your lease early if you need to move for safety reasons.

 

The Louisiana Violence Against Women Act (“LAVAWA”) covers “domestic abuse” which is abuse involving a family member, defined as a spouse, former spouse, parent, child, stepparent, stepchild, foster parent, and foster child. The law only covers you if you live in a property with six or more units, or ten or more units if the landlord lives there too. See La. Revised Statute 9:3261.1.

 

In order to move early, you must write your landlord a letter requesting to end the lease early and include a copy of:

  • A protective order, OR
  • A police report, OR
  • A form signed under penalty of perjury by a victim service provider, an attorney, medical professional, or a mental health professional certifying that you are a survivor of domestic violence.

 

The form referenced above is here: Sample LAVAWA certification form

 

You and the landlord must agree upon a day for you to move out. That day must be within 30 days of the landlord getting the letter you sent them asking to end the lease early.

What are the risks? +

If you move out before the end of your lease, most leases say your landlord can keep your security deposit.

 

If you move out before the end of your lease, your landlord could also try to charge you the rent due for the remainder of the lease term. For example, if you move out three months into a year lease, the landlord could try to charge you the remaining seven months of rent even though you would not be living there anymore.

 

Your landlord does have a “duty to mitigate damages” under the law, meaning they have to try to re-rent the apartment.

 

There are three ways your landlord could pursue the remainder of the rent due under the lease:

  1. Your landlord could sue you, probably in small claims court, for the balance of rent due under the lease.
  2. If you try to sue your landlord for your security deposit, your landlord could counter-sue for the rent due under the lease.
  3. Larger landlords might be able to report a debt to the credit bureaus or consumer reporting companies, which could come up when you apply for a future apartment.

 

If your landlord sues you, you have a right to defend yourself in court. If your landlord reports a debt to the credit bureaus, you have a right to contest it. It is important to create a paper trail to protect yourself in case either of these things happens.

How can I get legal help? +

Acadiana Legal Service Corporation and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services provide free legal assistance to those that qualify - typically at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty GuidelinesPlease do not visit legal service providers in person during this time. Due to the virus, all organizations are encouraging people to contact them over the telephone, or by applying for services online.

 

SLLS has a COVID-19 Hotline you can access by calling 844-244-7871.

 

If you don't qualify for free legal services, you may qualify for the Modest Means Directory. You may also be able to submit a question and get legal advice online through the Louisiana Free Legal Answers program.

 

If your income is still too high for the Modest Means Directory or Louisiana Free Legal Answers, you'll need to find a private attorney through the Louisiana State Bar Association. 

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