I recently received a very good question through my blog but because it was posted under my “About The Author” section I don’t think enough people would see it so I decided to reprint it as a post.
I will start by saying thank you for this forum, I find it very helpful and one of a kind. I know you must be very busy but I was hoping you could point me in the right direction regarding a question I have. I am a landlord and I had tenants move without giving a 90 day notice which was one of the provisions I set within their lease. I think this is a breach of contract and if so can I to take them to court? Would it still be filed by small claims, and is there a time limit I must file within? Can I even file for this? Thanks for your time.
Thank you for your kind words and I am happy to hear that my blog is helpful to you.
You did not mention if your rental agreement was a periodic tenancy (month to month or something similar) or a lease for term (1 year lease etc.). I will assume that it is the latter.
If a tenant breaks a lease for term and moves out prior to the ending of the term a landlord has a duty to make reasonable efforts to re-rent the unit. The tenant will remain responsible for paying rent if the landlord is unable to find a tenant to re-rent. The tenant will also be responsible for paying the costs incurred by the landlord to re-rent the unit. The applicable statute dealing with this issue is Sec. 704.29, Wis. Stats.
If you have a term lease that states the tenant must give 90 days notice if they plan to move out at the end of the lease term and the tenant completes the lease term and then moves out but fails to give the landlord notice then you have an entirely different situation then when a tenant breaks a lease and moves out early. In this situation the tenant completed the full term and actually did not breach the lease. Because it was a lease for term and the tenant completed the full term of the lease the landlord cannot hold the tenant responsible for an additional 3 month’s of rent (over and above the lease term) just becasue the tenant failed to give the 90 day notice — the reason being that the tenant did complete the term of the lease. Such a notice provision in lease is legal and are included to assist the landlord so that the landlord will be alerted by the tenant if the tenant intend to leave at the end of the term BUT a landlord should not solely rely on the tenant to provide that notice. It is the landlord’s job to determine whether or not a tenant intends to enter into a new lease after the full term of the initial lease is completed.
It is good practice for a landlord to send a reminder to the tenant prior to the 90 days notice period (or whatever notice is set forth in the rental agreement) and either (1) advise the tenant that the lease will not be renewed and providing the tenant with move out instructions, or (2) include a new lease and ask the tenant to sign the documents and return them within X days if they intend to stay for another term. If the tenant does not return the newly signed lease to the landlord within the requisite time period then the landlord may choose to follow up with a telephone call to the tenant if s/he wants to but it is not necessary and the landlord may assume that the tenant will not be renewing the lease and the landlord should began to advertise and make efforts to re-rent.
To try and hold the tenant responsible for an additional 90 days rent beyond the completed rental term because the tenant did not provide the landlord with the 90 day notice that they would be vacating at the end of their lease would be in violation of both ATCP 134.09(3) and Sec. 704.15, Wis. Stats., regarding “automatic renewal clauses.”
To address the second issue that you raised in your comment (assuming it is not moot because of the above answer) small claims has jurisdiction over any civil lawsuits that are seeking $5,000 or less in damages. So if you were attempting to collect 3 months of rent from a tenant (and they have already moved out thus negating the need to file an eviction) then as long as the 3 month’s of rent is less then $5,000 you would file that collection action in small claims. See sec. 799.01(d), Wis. Stats. If you were seeking damages greater than $5,000 then you would need to file suit in large claims and pay the higher filing fee.
Addressing the next issue raised in your comment, individual persons are allowed to represent themselves in court whether in large claims or small claims (whether or not that is advisable is a separate question that I will not address). Business entitites (corporations, LLC’s etc.) are not allowed to be represented in large claims lawsuits by a non-attorney — you would need to hire a lawyer to represent your business entity in large claims.
In small claims actions, the law carves out a small exception and will allow a business entity to be represented in court by a full-time employee of the business entity. Sec. 799.06(2), Wis. Stats. Milwaukee – more than any other county – is enforcing this strictly and requires a copy of a W2 from the employee issued by the entity to verify this. Managing members or sole members of an LLC are not considered to be a full-time employee of the LLC unless they are paid income by the LLC.
Your final question, asks if there is a time limit in which you must file a lawsuit against your tenants for failure to give the requisite 90 day notice to you prior to vacating. As I mentioned above, depending on your specific fact situation and the type of rental agreement you are using, you may not even have a claim against your tenant for the 3 month’s rent. However, assuming you do have a claim it would be a claim for breach of contract and the statute of limitations for breach of contract claim is 6 years from the date of the breach.
I hope that helps