Did you know that if you have an illegal provision in your rental agreement that the entire agreement may be unenforceable? Unfortunately this is true. In the case of Baierl v. McTaggart the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that because the landlord’s lease contained an illegal provision, the entire lease could be thrown out. This result can occur even if you never tried to enforce the “illegal” provision as was the case with the landlord in the Baierl case.
In my representation of landlords over the past 14 years, the two most frequent situations in which I have found an illegal provision in a rental agreement were because: (1) the landlord decided to draft his/her own rental agreement and didn’t know that Wisconsin law prohibited him/her from including certain language, and (2) the landlord used a rental agreement that s/he found on the internet that was not drafted by a person knowledgeable about Wisconsin law.
The Wisconsin Administrative Code, Chapter ATCP 134, specifically ATCP 134.08 sets forth the 7 provisions that cannot be included in a Wisconsin residential rental agreement – often referred to as the 7 deadly sins.
You cannot include a provision in your rental agreement that:
1. Authorizes the eviction of a tenant from the property other than by the judicial eviction process set forth in the Wisconsin Statutes.
Essentially this means that if the tenant refuses to vacate at the end of a lease or after committing a breach, the landlord is not able to engage in self-help eviction. You are not allowed to change the locks so that the tenant is locked out. You are not allowed to remove the door to the apartment. You are not allowed to turn off the heat or electricity to the unit. Nor can you remove the tenant’s belongings and put them on the curb or in a storage facility.
If a tenant refuses to leave your property, the only legal way to have them removed is to file an eviction action against them, obtain a judgment of eviction, and if necessary involve the Sheriff’s Department to physically remove the tenant. Because this is the only legal way to remove a tenant it is illegal to include some other procedure to evict a tenant in your rental agreement.
2. Provides for the acceleration of rent payments if the tenant defaults or breaches the rental agreement.
Some commercial leases include an “acceleration of rents” clause but such clauses are prohibited in Wisconsin residential leases. So if a tenant breaches their rental agreement the landlord cannot require that the tenant immediately pay all future rent through the end of the term. According to sec. 704.29 of the Wisconsin Statutes, the landlord must attempt to mitigate the tenant’s damages by trying to re-rent the unit. If the landlord is able to re-rent the unit then the breaching tenant will no longer be responsible for the rent once the new tenant moves in and begins paying rent. If the landlord is unable to re-rent the unit then the breaching tenant may very well be responsible for all of the rent through the end of the term, however since the landlord is unable to determine if that will be the case at the time of the breach, the landlord cannot include language in the agreement that the tenant must pay all future rent immediately upon a breach.
3. Waives the landlord’s duty to mitigate damages.
As I mentioned above, landlord’s have a duty to mitigate a tenant’s damages by trying to re-rent the unit. As such, it is illegal for the landlord to avoid that duty by putting such language in the rental agreement.
4. Requires the tenant to pay the landlord’s attorney’s fees or costs that are incurred in any legal action or dispute arising under the rental agreement.
This is the illegal provision that I see the most often when reviewing rental agreements. The lease agreements that are sold at OfficeMax and Office Depot contain this prohibited language. This is also the illegal language that was included in the rental agreement at issue in the Baierl case that I reference above.
In a commercial lease it is acceptable to include language that requires a tenant to pay for the landlord’s attorney’s fees and costs however it is not allowed in the residential context. A landlord who prevails in court and has a tenant properly evicted will still be responsible for paying his/her own attorney’s fees. If you are interested in learning more about the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s reasoning you should read the Baierl case here.
5. Relieves the landlord from liability for property damage or personal injuries caused by the landlord’s negligent acts or omissions.
To put it simply, if the landlord causes damage or injury to a tenant then the landlord will be responsible for it. A landlord cannot remove his/her liability by having a tenant sign a rental agreement waiving that responsibility. For example, if a landlord is aware that the railing on his rental property’s second floor porch is loose and the landlord has not gotten around to repairing it for several weeks, the landlord will be responsible for the tenant’s injuries should he fall off the porch, regardless of what the rental agreement says.
6. Imposes liability on a tenant for injuries or damages which are clearly beyond the tenant’s control or any damage caused by natural disasters or by persons other then the tenant or the tenant’s guests.
This is very similar to the 5th deadly sin mentioned above but is even broader in scope. The landlord can’t hold a tenant responsible for someone else’s negligence (other than a guest) if the tenant has no control over that person, nor can the landlord hold the tenant responsible for injuries or damage resulting from an act of God. So if the tenant or the tenant’s guest was negligent and that negligence caused damage or injury to the tenant or his property then the landlord will not be responsible – the tenant would. But if a massive snowstorm damages the rental property or an electrician hired by the landlord improperly wires the unit causing injuries and damage, the landlord cannot hold the tenant responsible regardless of what the rental agreement says.
7. Waives any other statutory or legal obligation of the landlord to deliver the unit in a fit or habitable condition or maintain the unit during the tenancy.
A landlord has a responsibility to provide the tenant with an apartment that is liveable and safe. A landlord also has the responsibility to repair and maintain the property to insure that it remains safe and liveable. A landlord cannot avoid this responsibility even if the tenant agrees to allow him/her to do so in the rental agreement.
Wisconsin landlords need to make sure their rental agreements do not contain any of these 7 deadly sins. Failure to remove such illegal provisions may result in your rental agreement being declared unenforceable against the tenant and may even expose you to a lawsuit for double damages and attorney’s fees by the tenant.