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When Is an Eviction Illegal?

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In a Nutshell

If you’re a tenant, your landlord has a right to evict you in certain situations but the eviction must follow state eviction laws. Let’s take a look at what may happen if your landlord illegally forces you to vacate a rental unit in violation of state law.

Written by Curtis Lee, JD
Updated April 12, 2022

If you’re a tenant, your landlord has a right to evict you in certain situations. For example, nonpayment of rent or destruction of rental property could result in a lawful eviction. No matter why your landlord chooses to evict you, the eviction must follow state eviction laws. If your landlord doesn't follow procedures as required by state law, even if they have a proper reason for evicting you, they could be guilty of committing a crime in violation of state law.

Let’s take a look at what may happen if your landlord illegally forces you to vacate a rental unit in violation of state law.

Examples of Illegal Evictions 

There are many ways that a landlord can illegally evict you or another tenant. These unlawful possibilities include:

  • Changing the locks on the doors resulting in a lockout.

  • Removing personal property from the property.

  • Removing the front door.

  • Refusing to fix a significant problem that makes part or all of the property uninhabitable.

  • Cutting off utilities to the property, such as electricity or water.

  • Turning off the heat (in the winter) or air conditioning (in the summer).

  • Threatening or harassing you or other members of your household.

  • Demanding that you immediately leave the property.

  • Playing loud music for extended periods of time.

  • Failing to provide you with an eviction notice.

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Consequences of Illegal Evictions for the Landlord 

In most states, landlords aren't allowed to resort to “self-help” as a means of evicting you. That means, your landlord can't (lawfully) evict you without following the terms of your lease agreement and state law. Self-help evictions are illegal even if a landlord otherwise has a legal right to evict you.

If your landlord tries to evict you without following proper procedure, you can sue them for wrongful eviction. In certain situations, you may also have additional legal claims that you can file. The following are some of the claims that could be made, as well as situations wherein they might exist.

  • Trespass — If your landlord has entered the property without permission and in a way that’s not permitted under the lease.

  • Assault and/or battery — If your landlord physically removed you from the property or threatened you with physical harm.

  • Slander and/or libel — If your landlord made untrue statements to others about you to convince them to help evict you.

  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress — If your landlord verbally threatened you or took other steps to intimidate, scare, or harass you.

  • Conversion of property — If your landlord removed your personal belongings from the property and threw them away.

  • Criminal damage to property — If your landlord injured your pets or damaged your possessions as a means of intimidation or harassment. 

The damages you could potentially be awarded in a lawsuit will depend upon the specific claims you file. Some of these damages could be relatively easy to calculate and prove, such as:

  • The cost of any personal property that disappeared after you were locked out.

  • The value of any personal property that was damaged or destroyed because of its removal from the rental property.

  • The amount of money spent on a temporary place to live after the landlord changed the locks.

  • The value of any food that became spoiled in a refrigerator or freezer after your landlord shut off power to the property.

  • Lost income from missed work because you had to deal with the wrongful eviction.

  • Medical bills for any injury you sustained when the landlord physically removed you from the property.

Other types of damages could be harder to quantify or establish, like mental anguish and emotional distress caused by your landlord’s unlawful actions. As you can imagine, it can be hard to put a dollar amount on any psychological harm you may have suffered from the wrongful eviction. Your testimony could help illustrate how the eviction harmed you emotionally. An expert witness, such as a doctor, therapist, social worker, or counselor, could also testify as to any toll the eviction has taken on your emotional and physical health.

There may also be state-specific laws in place that could allow you to recover additional damages via an eviction lawsuit. These extra, or modified, damage awards could include one or more of the following:

  • Having your damage award multiplied by a factor of 2 or 3.

  • Receiving the larger of either 2 or 3 months’ rent or your actual damages. This creates a “floor” on the lowest amount of damages you could win in a lawsuit.

  • Awarding you attorney’s fees and court costs.

  • Ordering the automatic return of your security deposit.

How the Eviction Process Is Supposed To Work 

If your landlord wants to end your tenancy and evict you, they are required to follow the steps listed below, unless otherwise specified by state law. If they deviate from any of these steps, you may have grounds to file a legal claim against your landlord. Remember that the nuances of the eviction process vary from state to state, but the following should give you a general idea of the overall process.

Step one: The first step requires the landlord to serve the tenant with an eviction notice. What this notice must contain (and what it’s called) differs among states, but most eviction notices will be one of three types:

  • Pay rent or quit —This type of eviction notice comes into play for nonpayment of rent. Per this notice, a tenant is granted a short period of time to catch up on rent or vacate the property. Most state laws will only give tenants three to five days to pay any back rent, although it’s possible that the terms of the lease could offer a little bit more time.

  • Cure or quit —This notice is used in situations where the eviction is being initiated due to a lease violation. An example might be if the lease doesn’t allow for pets and the tenant has a pet anyways. A cure or quit termination notice will allow the tenant to address the lease violation in question or leave the property by a specific deadline.

  • Unconditional quit — In this situation, there’s nothing that the tenant can do to stop the eviction process. However, as a general rule, a landlord may not terminate a lease early unless they have a specific reason for doing so and that reason is allowed by the terms of the lease and state law.

Step two: The second step will arise if, after receiving the eviction notice, the tenant remains at the rental property. At this point, the landlord will need to file a formal eviction action with the courts to proceed with a lawful eviction process. If the tenant wishes to fight the eviction, the tenant may provide a defense and/or file a counterclaim. A tenant doesn’t have to hire an attorney to assist with their defense, but getting professional legal help can be the deciding factor between winning an eviction case and having to find a new place to live.

If a landlord wins an eviction lawsuit, they’ll receive an eviction judgment, which is a court order giving them the legal right to evict the tenant. But, they are not empowered to remove the tenant from the property themselves. 

Step three: The landlord gets a sheriff or marshal to remove the tenant and the tenant’s possessions from the property. What often happens is that the marshal or sheriff will notify the tenant of the court order evicting them. The tenant will then have a set amount of time to vacate the property. 

Step four: If the tenant doesn't leave after they have been notified and been given time to vacate, then law enforcement may enter the property and physically remove the tenant and their personal property.

Let’s Summarize…

A wrongful eviction can take many forms, but one commonality that all illegal evictions share is that they all violate the law. If your landlord wants you off the property, they must properly notify you of the eviction and start the legal process in court. Only after winning the eviction case in court and giving you a reasonable time to vacate can the landlord ask a sheriff or marshal to remove you from the property.

If your landlord does attempt to evict you illegally, you may be able to file one or more legal claims against them. A lawsuit that is decided in your favor could potentially help you recover the costs you suffered as a result of the wrongful eviction or an amount of up to three times your actual damages. 

If you are concerned that your landlord may be trying to evict you illegally, it could be helpful to consult with a lawyer who specializes in eviction cases. It is important to understand your rights as a tenant and to be aware of the steps a landlord must follow so you can know whether you are being treated unlawfully and whether you have grounds for recourse. 

Written By:

Curtis Lee, JD


Curtis Lee is a writer and co-owner at Marvel Hill Freelance. Curtis earned his Bachelor of Science in Business from Wake Forest University and his Juris Doctor (JD) from Villanova University School of Law. After graduating law school, Curtis had the honor of clerking for a stat... read more about Curtis Lee, JD

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