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Suppose that a person T (for tenant) had a year ago rented an apartment that had some water damage due to a pipe bursting inside the building. There was a lot of back and forth between T and the property manager P, and recently T finally got a bill for $10k+ to cover the cost of repairs, as they're claiming T is at fault due to not reporting it sooner. T disagrees and would like to take this to court if need be.

How is T supposed to dispute said bill?

This page talks about disputing a debt with a debt collector, but as far as I understand T only has a "bill" for now and it would only turn into a "debt" if T fails to pay. However suppose T wants to be proactive and make sure to dispute it ASAP using the right legal mechanism.

Assume T is located in Washington/Seattle.

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With that much potentially at stake, you might want to discuss this with a lawyer. many lawyers will do an initial consultation for free or a low charge.

However, you could simply write a letter saying that you do not agree that you owe the money and that you dispute the charge. You may give any reasons why you think you are not liable. It might be a good idea to add that there may be other reasons as well, so you do not foreclose any possible legal arguments that you may learn of later.

Send the letter by certified mail, return receipt, and keep a copy with a note of the date that you sent it. It is not a bad idea to get the certified mail form first and include the certified item number as part of the inside address in the letter. Keep the copy, and keep the receipt with it when you get it.

It is not a bad idea to send a copy by email, noting that it is a copy of a certified letter. This will put a record of the date and time it was sent in the email service provider's records.

Normally it is up to the person who claims another owes money to file suit. If your former landlord takes no action, you need do nothing. However it is a good idea to check your credit reports and see if this was reported as a bad debt. if it is, you can file a statement of dispute with the credit bureaus.

If there is any further correspondence on the matter, be sure it is in writing, and that you keep a copy. If you are called on the telephone about it, send a prompt followup letter summarizing the conversation, and particularly any statements made by the other party, and any agreements reached. Keep a copy, and send a copy by email as well as by postal mail. It should probably start something like "In our telephone conversation on {date} about {topic} you stated ..."

If you are sued you will need to consider whether to retain a lawyer to represent you.

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  • @SJuan76 Quite true, i should have written email service provider. not ISP Now corrected Sep 29 at 20:56
  • Follow up question: is it advised to cease all communications after the certified letter has been delivered? What if the other side chooses to continue demanding the bill to be paid without actually filing a suit or sending it for collections? Sep 30 at 20:07
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    @JonathanReez I am afraid that crosses the line into legal advice, which we don't do here. You may well want to consult an actual lawyer. I can say that until an actual suit or collection action takes place, you are not obliged to pay, but the contents of correspondence may be relevant if a court case occurs. Sep 30 at 20:16
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There is a distinction between keeping a security deposit and suing a person for damages. In the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, §280, the damage deposit must be returned within 21 days, and "the landlord shall give a full and specific statement of the basis for retaining any of the deposit together with the payment of any refund due the tenant under the terms and conditions of the rental agreement". That typically limits how much a landlord can automatically withhold under the guise of taking a security deposit. The lease may contain a dispute-resolution provision, via arbitration or mediation.

That section also states

(3) Nothing in this chapter shall preclude the landlord from proceeding against, and the landlord shall have the right to proceed against a tenant to recover sums exceeding the amount of the tenant's damage or security deposit for damage to the property for which the tenant is responsible together with reasonable attorneys' fees.

But now we are in the realm of ordinary tort law, for example, suppose a neighbor is cutting down a tree on his property and it smacks your house. You could give him a bill for the repairs, but unless he agrees voluntarily to pay, you will have to take him to court, to sue you for damages. Or, they can claim a debt and turn the matter over to a collection agency (in which case there is a different procedure for disputing the debt).

Given your description, you have a legal threat, but no actual legal obligation: the immediate remedy is to realizes that you have no current obligation to pay anything, and you should hire an attorney to keep it that way. In his lawsuit, the landlord will have to spell out what your obligation as tenant was, and show how you breached that obligation. If (as is more likely) the landlord sends the matter to a collections agency, your next steps are described here. Briefly, you notify the agency within 30 days of their notification that you dispute the debt.

Given the stakes and however the landlord plans on acting, it is probably best to let your lawyer do the writing.

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