The Landlord’s Omnibus Law (Act 143) introduced a new statutory section to Chapter 799 regarding situations when a landlord accepts past due rent from a tenant after the tenant’s tenancy has been terminated. Newly created sec. 799.40(1m) states as follows:
If a landlord commences an action under this section against a tenant whose tenancy has been terminated for failure to pay rent, the action under this section may NOT be dismissed solely because the landlord accepts past due rent from the tenant after the termination of the tenant’s tenancy.
On its face, this seems like a very helpful statute for landlords.
As a quick refresher, it is important to remember that a tenant’s tenancy can be terminated in many ways such as after the “cure” period passes after being properly served with a 5 day notice, 14 days after being properly served with a 14 day notice, or when a lease term ends.
Prior to sec. 799.40(1m) being created, tenant’s advocates argued — and some courts held — that if a landlord accepted past due rent from a tenant after the expiration of the tenant’s tenancy that the landlord entered into a new agreement with the tenant for a month to month tenancy, thus waiving the landlord’s right to proceed with an eviction action based on the prior notice.
I personally believe that such arguments are hogwash, but I will not digress, as that is not the purpose of this post.
Nonetheless, because this “waiver” argument was successfully raised in the past, I have always advised my clients to err on the side of caution and not accept past due rent after the tenant’s tenancy was terminated. A landlord can refuse past due rent in one of two ways. First, a landlord can simply refuse the tendered past due rent from the tenant or return the rent payment to the tenant. This is always a difficult pill for landlords to swallow as they know that by returning the rent payment to the tenant that they will never see that money again.
Second, a landlord could hold the past due rent payment in escrow (not cashing the check or money order) and immediately write what I refer to as a “no waiver” letter and send to the tenant via certified and regular mail. A “no waiver” letter simply advises the tenant that their past due rent payment is not being accepted as their tenancy has already been terminated. The letter also should advise the tenant that it is the landlord’s intent to pursue the eviction of the tenant and that the landlord will hold the past due rent in escrow pending a determination by the eviction court as to who legally has the right to possess the rental property. Finally, a “no waiver” letter should again remind the tenant that the payment they made is not being accepted.
Whenever I have drafted a “no waiver” letter for a client that has accepted past due rent from a tenant post tenancy, I never had a court hold that my landlord client waived his/her right to proceed with the eviction lawsuit. As a result, my clients have become big fans of the “no waiver” letter.
With the creation of sec. 799.40(1m), it would seem that there is no longer a need for a landlord to send a “no waiver” letter or to return a past due rent payment to a tenant . . . or is there. I would caution landlords against thinking that this newly created statute is the panacea that it appears to be.
Let me explain.
First, if you read the new law closely — which I don’t believe the drafters did or they would have remedied this oversight – it states that an eviction based on a tenant’s failure to pay rent, may not be dismissed solely because the landlord accepts past due rent after the termination of the tenant’s tenancy.
There are many basis for terminating a tenant’s tenancy besides just failure to pay rent. Other reasons may include the expiration of a lease term or a breach of the rental agreement for something other than non-payment of rent (i.e. criminal activity, damage to the property, loud music, illegal guests etc). The new law does not address what happens if a landlord accepts past due rent from a tenant and the tenant’s tenancy was terminated for somthing other than failure to pay rent.
So literally speaking, a court could still dismiss an eviction if a landlord accepts past due rent from a tenant who’s tenancy was terminated based on something other than failure to pay rent and not run afoul of the new law. Ouch! What about situations in which the tenant’s tenancy was terminated for failure to pay rent AND other reasons? Does the new law applyin those situations?
A second concern with the new law arose recently in Milwaukee County. Please note that this information was relayed to me by another person so I cannot 100% vouch that I have all the facts correct since I was not present when this happened. What I was told was that a landlord’s eviction lawsuit, based upon a tenant’s failure to pay rent, was dismissed because the landlord accepted past due rent from the tenant after the termination of the tenant’s tenancy and failed to advise the tenant that it was the landlord’s intent to still proceed with the eviction of the tenant. The court held that newly created sec. 799.40(1m) was not applicable in this situation because the landlord failed to advise the tenant of the fact that the landlord still intended to evict them.
Simply put, the new law is not as great as it appears — so be cautious when relying on it. Know your judge. Know your court commissioner. Regardless of what the law says, if the court believes it says something else or is not applicable to your specific facts, you may not get the result that you were expecting.
So as a result of above, I am still advising my clients (despite sec. 799.40(1m) being the new law in town) that they should consider refusing to accept any past due rent from a tenant after the tenant’s tenancy has been terminated. At the very least they should send a “no waiver” letter.
So proceed with caution.