Lawsuits over deposits are simple procedures


March 20, 1994|By George B. Laurent

One of the prime causes of disputes between tenants and landlords involves charges to the security deposit. If these disputes cannot be resolved and the sum involved is $2,500 or less, the tenant can sue in Small Claims Court.

This is a relatively informal and simple procedure in which most tenants are able to represent themselves without the aid of a lawyer.

The suit should be filed as soon as possible, but within three years of the time the dispute arises, in the county where the rental property is located. The landlord must be summoned to court by use of certified mail, a sheriff or a private process server -- either a professional or someone, such as a friend or relative, not directly involved in the case.

The first step is to obtain the cor rect name and address of the landlord -- not always available to a tenant. This may be obtained from the city/county office of Assessments and Taxation. If the landlord is a corporation, it needs to be sued care of its corporate resident agent, whose name and address can be obtained from the state's Corporate Charter Department (410) 225-1340.

The case should be prepared as carefully and concisely as possible, keeping to the essential points and not introducing past experiences or disputes that are irrelevant to the security deposit dispute. Make an outline of your presentation. Visit the -- Small Claims Court before the trial to gain a feel for the situation.

Bring all relevant documents to court. File a subpoena duces tecum -- requiring the landlord to bring to court any document that you believe to be relevant, such as repair bills or equipment invoices.

Should you have damaged an item beyond worthwhile repair, such as a refrigerator, be aware that many professional landlords depreciate moveable items, including wall-to-wall carpeting, in seven years. You should only be responsible for residual value.

The landlord can only charge reasonable fees for his labor, such as what the average cleaning lady might charge for cleaning a house. Have witnesses that will testify as to the condition of the house when you moved in and when you vacated the property.

The landlord must have informed you in writing, when you gave him the security deposit, of your right to be present at a final inspection of the property. He must also send you an itemization of claims against the security deposit within 30 days of the end of the tenancy. If he fails to do this, he loses the right to charge the security deposit for any damage, including lost rent.

A pamphlet describing the Small Claims Court process in detail is available from your local District Court.

George B. Laurent is executive director of BNI, or Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a private non-profit group that works to resolve tenant-landlord problems and to eliminate housing discrimination.

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