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I'm having a typical tenant landlord dispute. The TLDR is that I'm the tenant and my property manager is claiming exorbitant damages and landscaping clean up fees as well as home cleaning fees to a property we rented in Florida for 1 year.

I've moved to NJ after that rental. I want to take him to small claims as I have video of the house when we left it showing that it was not dirty enough to warrant 1k clean up but the main thing I think I can get him on is that he didn't follow the language of the lease in the security deposit section. He didn't send a certified letter letting me know his intent to make claims within 30 days. 33 days after the lease ended, he mailed a certified letter with a check that had a tiny fraction of the of the security deposit and a letter detailing what was deducted and why. (Hes supposed to allow me 15 days to refute any claims he was making).

He did send an email 15 days after we left saying he was "waiting for bills from the cleaners". However, along with the check that he sent 33 days after the lease ended, he sent a letter detailing what was deducted and why. However, On 9/13/20, he sent another email with a bill from the cleaners attached that is dated 8/31 (the last day of the lease) claiming he had just received it. He's going to claim they didn't get him a bill until 8/31 (I know he probably got them to make up a phony bill with that date exactly 30 days after the lease ended and claim that's why he couldn't send the certified letter in time)

In our back and forth where I told him I was going to take him to court and sue him for the legal fees+the security in an effort to have him just return the security deposit he claimed that the landlord "knows the best real estate lawyer in Florida" and that I'd be the one getting stuck paying the legal fees.

I've reached out to lawyers in the area but everyone is trying to charge 300-400 just for a consultation fee but I would be devastated if I had to pay for the 2 trips to Florida (for mediation + small claims court appearance) and I ended up losing and being forced to pay his legal fees on top of losing my security deposit.

I believe I have a very strong case outside of just the 30 day clause refuting the costs hes claiming but I'm kind of lost as to how to go about fighting this.

My main question is: how strictly will a small claims court uphold the language of the lease. Will they be lenient enough and assume an email is good enough for a certified letter or will it be simply - didn't comply with the 30 days, you lose.

  • Are you sure he can claim legal fees in a small claims case? – Ron Beyer Sep 14 '20 at 16:22
  • Did you receive the letter 33 days after the lease ended or did he send it 33 days after the lease ended? – Dave D Sep 14 '20 at 17:10
  • @RonBeyer: On the flip side, OP may not be able to claim legal fees in small claims court either. – Nate Eldredge Sep 14 '20 at 17:17
  • Does the lease say explicitly what should happen if the 30-day deadline is missed? Generally court cases are not as simple as "if defendant fails to do any of the things he was supposed to, then plaintiff automatically wins everything they ask for". One possible outcome is the landlord's delay in sending the letter would only make him liable for damages resulting from that delay - can you prove that getting the letter three days late cost you money in some way? Presumably very little if at all. But it may not have any bearing on the bigger question of whether the charge was justified. – Nate Eldredge Sep 14 '20 at 17:26
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    This is exact wording from the lease: " If the LANDLORD fails to give the required notice within the 30-day period, he or she forfeits the right to impose a claim upon the security deposit. ". Also it states that the prevailing party gets compensated for their legal fees as well in the lease – novawaly Sep 14 '20 at 17:39
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Will they be lenient enough and assume an email is good enough for a certified letter?

Not necessarily. But Florida law enables both landlord and tenant to overcome this and related statutory violations, which means that the landlord may still seek recovery of so-called damages.

If the landlord can prove your awareness of his email notice (i.e., you replied to it within the 30-day period), then not being sent by certified mail becomes irrelevant. What matters in this controversy is that (1) landlord's belatedness forfeits his right to deduct from tenant's security deposit, although (2) the landlord "may file an action for damages after return of the deposit" (see final sentence in 83.49(3)(a)).

Florida Statute 83.49(3)(a) gives the landlord 30 days to notify the tenant "the reason for imposing the claim". Merely telling you that he was "waiting bills from the cleaners" does not meet this statutory requirement. Furthermore, the email notice presumably did not even give an estimate of how much he intended to deduct from the security deposit, thereby substantially departing from the sample in 2nd paragraph of 83.49(3)(a).

Landlord's other violation of 83.49 is that he prematurely deducted from your security deposit. He did not comply with the statutory 15-day period tenants have for objecting to the deduction from the security deposit.

However, because of the last sentence in 83.49(3)(a), the landlord can overcome his statutory noncompliance --including the matter of certified mail-- by returning your deposit and then filing suit.

I am not promoting that you pay whatever excessive amount the landlord intends to charge you, but it is important to realize how the final provision in 83.49(3)(a) (and 83.49(3)(b), the equivalent for tenant) renders the timeliness of notices essentially irrelevant. Landlord's belatedness as to his notice does not preclude recovery.

  • While the landlord's belatedness does not preclude recovery, it does require the landlord to return the entire security deposit and file suit. The weight of the problem will then shift to the landlord to sue to recover damages rather than the tenant having to sue to recover a withheld security deposit. I would imagine that if the tenant filed suit to recover the security deposit, the landlord would file a counterclaim for the alleged damages. The question becomes whether there's an administrative method to recover the deposit that doesn't entertain counterclaims as part of the same process. – Dave D Sep 14 '20 at 19:52
  • @DaveD "it does require the landlord to return the entire security deposit and file suit". Sure. Hence why I quoted the statute "after return of the deposit" and in the 2nd-to-last paragraph mentioned "by returning your deposit and then filing suit". As for an administrative method (i.e. proceedings) that does not allow for counterclaims, I highly doubt there is any. Even if there is, the benefit therefrom is marginal at that point. – Iñaki Viggers Sep 14 '20 at 20:16
  • My thinking is if he returns it then files a suit, he'd have to prove I was responsible for "not cutting back the trees" in my time there which can get tricky. Theres really no real damage, his claim is that bc I didn't trim all the trees on the property, he had to pay 5000 to trim them (1600 of which he is charging me). I have pictures on google maps of the trees from 2017 to 2020 showing almost 0 difference indicating that it's been years since they've been cut. Also have the previous tenants who lived there for 3 years willing to testify it hadn't been done in their time there as well. – novawaly Sep 14 '20 at 22:00
  • so I feel like it'll be harder for him to win a suit claiming I damaged the property by not trimming taller trees. Would this be logical thinking? – novawaly Sep 14 '20 at 22:00
  • @novawaly I'm not knowledgeable of what cost for trimming would be a reasonable, but (1) charging you 1600 seems excessive; (2) the pictures from 2017 to 2020 would reflect that the difference is immaterial and does not warrant charging you; and (3) testimony from previous tenants will surely help. If the language of the lease does not reasonably reflect or imply that you are responsible for items such as trimming the trees, then that would be another argument in your favor. If it does, it still seems the landlord is trying to overcharge you. – Iñaki Viggers Sep 14 '20 at 22:16

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