Posts Tagged ATCP 134

The Consequences of A Landlord Violating Wisconsin’s Residential Rental Practices (ATCP 134)

The Residential Landlord Tenant relationship is controlled by two main areas of law: (1) Chapter 704 of the Wisconsin Statutes, and (2) the Wisconsin Administrative Code, Chapter ATCP 134 entitled “Residential Rental Practices.”

ATCP 134 sets forth 21 regulations that a landlord must follow in a residential landlord tenant context.   ATCP 134, under its orginal name “Agriculture 134,” was first introduced in May of 1980.  “Ag 134″ was then renamed ATCP (Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection) 134 in 1993.  In 1999 there was a complete overhaul of ATCP 134 which resulted in the 21 regulations that we have today.

If you are a landlord and are not familiar with ATCP 134 please take the time to read the chapter — it is only 5 pages long and is relatively easy to understand — it must have been drafted by someone other than a lawyer or government employee  : )

The main remedy available to a tenant that is damaged by a landlord violating ATCP is what is referred to as the “private attorney general” provision.  Essentially, the Wisconsin Statutes allow a party who is injured by a violation of ATCP 134 to “step into the shoes” of the State Attorney General to privately prosecute such violations.

This private attorney general provision, specifically sec. 100.20(5), allows an injured tenant to recover double damages and reimbursement of their actual attorney’s fees against a landlord that has violated ATCP 134.

The State has enumerated several public policy reasons for allowing the private attorney general provision in the residential landlord tenant context, such as:

 1.   It encourages an injured tenant to enforce his/her rights even if the amount of damage is small and the aggrieved tenant does not have the “means” to pay for their own attorney.

2.   A tenant who sues for a violation of ATCP, while clearly enforcing his/her rights, will also be enforcing the public’s rights.

3.   By allowing a tenant the ability to more easily pursue such claims against his/her landlord, it will deter impermissable conduct by landlords and thus strengthen the bargaining power of tenants.

4.   It provides a necessary backup to the State, as the State does not have the time or resources to pursue lawsuits against all landlords who violate the regulations of ATCP 134.

Whatever your thoughts are about the above-reasoning, it is imperative that you become knowledgable about the 21 regulations contained in ATCP 134.  During the course of consulting with landlords and property managers in my job as an attorney, I am always surprised by the number of landlords that have never heard of ATCP 134.

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Self-Help Evictions (or Why You Should Not Remove The Roof In An Attempt To Evict Your Tenant)

I apologize for the delay in drafting a new post but this has been a crazy week with two trials in the early part of the week and another one tomorrow  (all tenants fighting evictions and none of these trials have been or will be easy).  But enough with the excuses . . .

I saw a recent article about a landlord in Lusaka, Zambia (Africa) that actually attempted to evict his tenants by physically removing the roof (which was made of iron sheets) to the home.  The article states that the landlord “may not have followed the proper procedures to evict the tenant.”  No kidding . . . . really, I’m sure it would be illegal to remove the roof to a rental unit in order to evict a tenant in any country (but I am just guessing).

I’m certainly no expert in Zambian landlord-tenant law but I do know that in Wisconsin, if a landlord tried attempted to evict a tenant by removing the roof to the rental property, that the landlord would be opening himself/herself up to liability for engaging in what is commonly referred to as “self-help eviction.”

Self-help eviction is a genreal term that refers to any attempt to remove a tenant from a rental property other than through the judicial eviction process and the use of the Sheriff.

In Wisconsin, the only way to legally remove a tenant (that refuses to leave) is through the judicial eviction process.  Once the landlord obtains a judgment of eviction and is issued the writ of restitution, should the tenant still fail to vacate the unit, the only legal avenue that the landlord has to reclaim his/her real estate in Milwaukee County is to execute the writ with the Sheriff.

Yes, you heard me correctly! Even if the court has ordered the tenant out of the rental unit, and the tenant intentionally ignore the court’s order, the landlord still cannot force the tenant out of his/her property.  The landlord must engage the services of the Sheriff to forcibly evict the tenant.

It is illegal in Wisconsin for a landlord to engage in self-help eviction.  Examples of self-help eviction would include the following:

1.   Changing the locks to the rental unit.

2.   Cutting off all utilities to the unit.

3.   Removing the outside door to the rental unit.

4.   Taking all of the tenant’s belongings and putting them out on the curb.

5.   Harassing the tenant in order to make them leave.

6.  Removing the roof to the rental unit . . .

Wisconsin Administrative Code, ATCP 134.09(7), entitled Prohibited Practices, states that, “No landlord may exclude, forcibly evict or constructively evict a tenant from a dwelling unit, other than by an eviction procedure specified under ch. 799, Wis. Stats.”

ATCP 134.08 (1), which lists prohibited rental provisions, also prohibits a landlord from including a clause in his or her rental agreement that authorizes the eviction of a tenant from a unit other than by the judicial eviction proceeding set forth in Ch. 799, Wis. Stats.

Many municipalities, such as Milwaukee and Madision, also have local ordinance that also prohibit self-help evictions.

While Chapter 704 of the Wisconsin Statutes does not specifically prohibit non-judicial forms of eviction, its legislative history states that the procedures for eviction set forth in Ch. 704 and Ch. 799 (Small Claims Procedure) are the exclusive means of conducting an eviction.

I believe (and hope) that most landlords understand that they cannot forcibly remove a tenant from a rental unit on their own.  I think that most landlords no that if a tenant will not leave voluntarily that they must file an eviction lawsuit against the tenant.  What I think many landlords do not understand however, is that after they have filed the eviction and obtained a judgement of eviction ordering the tenant to vacate the rental property, that if the tenant still refuses to leave, that the only legal avenue the landlord has is to execute the writ of restitution with the Sheriff.  This understandably upsets landlords because it results in additional time, delay and money.  In Milwaukee County it costs $125 to hire the Sheriff to evict the tenant and requires the posting of approximately $350 with a moving company. 

Despite this additional cost and aggravation, this is the law in Wisconsin.  I would alert any landlord that is thinking of skipping this part of the eviction process, and resort to self-help, to strongly reconsider.

The penalties for engaging in a self help eviction are sever.  A violation of ATCP 134, which precludes self-help eviction, allows the tenant to sue the landlord for double his/her damages and recover his/her attorney’s fees.

So if you find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit for self-help eviction you could end up paying the tenant’s damages times two, the tenant’s attorney’s fees, all associated court costs, along with your own attorney’s fees.  Trust me, I have defended several landlords in lawsuits alleging self-help eviction and the outcome can be very expensive.  Even if the landlord prevails in the end and a judge or jury decides that there was no self-help eviction, the costs in time and attorney’s fees to defend against the lawsuit can be substantial.  Don’t risk it.

I always encourage my clients to error on the side of caution.  If you are unsure whether or not a tenant has vacated the unit then you should file an eviction lawsuit and retain the services of the Sheriff to return the property back to you.  If you use the Sheriff’s services and the Sheriff removes the tenant, or otherwise determines that the unit has been abandoned, should a tenant later decide to file a lawsuit for illegal eviction s/he will need to sue the Sheriff, not the landlord.  Using the Sheriff is a big CYA.

So the moral of this blog post is simple — if you want your tenant to leave your rental property you should not remove the roof of the rental unit : )

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SECURITY DEPOSIT TRANSMITTAL LETTERS: How To Draft A Legal 21-Day Letter

Security deposit withholding issues are the second most litigated area in landlord tenant law after evictions.  If a landlord makes improper deduction from a tenant’s security deposit, pursuant to ATCP 134 and §100.20, Wis. Stats., the tenant may sue the landlord for double damages and attorney’s fees.  There are numerous published Court of Appeals decisions in Wisconsin dealing with this exact issue.  I would like to offer a few suggestions to landlords which will hopefully keep you from making any improper security deposit deductions.

First, we need to address some basics . . .

A security deposit is defined as “any payment that is given to a landlord as security for the performance of the tenants obligations under the rental agreement.” ATCP 134.01(11).

ATCP 134.06(2), states that within 21 days after a tenant surrenders the rental property, the landlord shall deliver or mail to the tenant the full amount of any security deposit held by the landlord, less any amounts properly withheld by the landlord.”

If you would like to know what a landlord may legally deduct from a tenant’s security deposit you will want to read my Jan. 17th post.

ATCP 134.06(4), states “If any portion of a security deposit is withheld by the landlord, the landlord shall, within the time period and manner prescribed in sub.(2) – 21 days — deliver or mail to the tenant a written statement accounting for all amounts withheld.  The statement shall describe each item of physical damages or other claim made against the security deposit, and the amount withheld as reasonable compensation for each item or claim.”

I will refer to this written statement interchangeably as either the “security deposit transmittal letter” or the “21-day letter.”

According to ATCP 134 all prepaid rent in excess of one month is legally considered to be a security deposit.  So if you require a new tenant to pay first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit, legally the security deposit will also include the last month’s rent

Essentially a landlord must either return a tenant’s security deposit or send the tenant an itemization of how the tenant’s security deposit was applied within 21 days after the tenant surrenders the premises.  This is mandatory.  No matter what the situation – even if you are legally entitled to keep all of the tenant’s security deposit – you must still send the tenant a letter explaining to them why you can legally keep it and how it was applied.  There is no situation in which you should not be sending the 21-day letter to a vacating residential tenant in Wisconsin.  Even if common sense tells you it is not necessary (i.e. the tenant told me to use his/her security deposit to pay for the last month’s rent) you should still send out the letter.  If you are wrong the ramification may be expensive.  Be safe – send the letter each and every time. Read the rest of this entry »

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Landlords Should Not Play Games With Tenants’ Security Deposits

A new landlord-tenant decision has been reccomended for publication.  The case of Boelter v. Tschantz involves a tenant suing her past landlord for double damages and attorney’s fees for making improper deductions from her security deposit.  
 
The essential facts are as follows:

1.   Tschantz (the landlord) withheld money from the tenant’s security deposit.

2.   The key deductions that were made were: (1) $323.84 for the tenant’s water bill and (2) $85 to repair a clogged toilet.

3.   After withholding a portion of the tenant’s security deposit to pay her water bill, the landlord then failed to pay the bill timely.  As such, the tenant opted to pay the utility directly to avoid late fees. 

4.   The landlord then sent a refund check to the tenant — three weeks later — for the amount that he deducted from her security deposit to cover the water bill along with a Post-It note that said “Oh, too bad no double damages for you.” 

5.   The landlord then stopped payment on the check prior to the tenant cashing it.

The Court of Appeals held that the landlord violated ATCP 134 as a result of his “game-playing” with the tenant’s security deposit. 

First violation of ATCP 134:  The court held that it was unreasonable for the landlord to withhold money from his tenant’s security deposit in order to pay her water bill and then not use that money to pay the water bill timely.  The court specifically stated, “A landlord cannot indefinitely retain a deposit — merely as a deposit — after a tenant vacates.”  Read the rest of this entry »

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Article and Video Regarding Recent Seminar On Advising and Defending Property Owners in Nuisance Actions

 

On May 7, 2009 I spoke at the State Bar of Wisconsin Annual Convention.  I was asked to speak at the Government Lawyer Division’s seminar that focused on the topic of neighborhoods and nuisance properties.  Specifically I was asked to speak on advising and defending property owners that have nuisance properties.

The State Bar recently published a nice article summarizing my seminar presentation which was published through its online Inside Track newsletter.  A link to the article and a short video of my presentation on the topic of written screening criteria is below.

House rules: Landlords knowledgeable of tenancy laws improves condition of rental properties, neighborhoods (from wisbar.org)

Landlord accountability: Advising and defending the property owner
July 1, 2009 — In this video clip, Milwaukee attorney Tristan Pettit explains the importance of the property owner’s consistent use of written criteria when screening potential tenants. Pettit spoke at the Government Lawyers Division program at the State Bar Annual Convention in May. (from wisbar.org)

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ATCP 134: THE 7 DEADLY SINS – 7 PROHIBITED RENTAL PROVISIONS

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.

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LATE FEES – PART 2: ATCP 134 REQUIREMENTS

Late fees are a necessary evil for landlords aw we often need some type of “hammer” to hold over the heads of tenants who pay rent late. With this post I want to provide you with some additional information on the requirements that must be met with regard to late fees as specified in ATCP 134 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code.

A Bit of History:

In the past – prior to ATCP 134 and when the administrative rules pertaining to residential rental housing were called Ag 134 — late fees were not allowed. Because of this creative landlords came up with the idea of offering discounts for the prompt payment of rent. For example, if the tenant pays rent by the 1st of the month the rent will be discounted to $650, however if rent is not received by the 1st of the month then the rental amount will remain at the regular rate of $700. By doing this landlords still were able to obtain a form of late fee without calling it a late fee.

I still see this “discount rent” option on a few of my client’s rental agreements but it has become rare as there is no need to disguise a late fee anymore since late fees are no longer prohibited.

ATCP 134.09(8) Rules Regarding Late Fees:

While late fees are no longer illegal, there are some rules that have been imposed regarding how and when late fees can be used. In the revised Ag Rules (now referred to as ATCP 134) the rules regarding late fees are as follows:

1.  You cannot charge a late fee or late penalty unless it is specifically stated in the rental agreement.

2.  You may not charge a late fee for the non-payment of a late fee.

3.  Before charging a late fee you must apply all rent prepayments received to offset the amount of rent owed by the tenant.

The first two rules are pretty straightforward. However the third rule is a bit confusing. In essence, the third rule is basically saying that you cannot apply a tenant’s rent payment to a past owed late fee so that the tenant would now be considered late in paying the current month’s rent thus allowing you to charge an additional late fee.

Here is an example: Joe Tenant fails to pay you rent for the month of June in the amount of $500. After the 6th of the month you charge Joe a $50 late fee. On or about June 10th Joe pays his rent of $500 for the month of June but fails to pay the $50 late fee. So while Joe has now paid June’s rent in full he still owes you a $50 late fee. When July 1st comes around Joe promptly pays you his July rent of $500. You are not allowed to take Joe’s July rent payment of $500 and apply $50 of that payment to the outstanding $50 late fee for June. This is not allowed because by doing so your actions would now make Joe responsible for paying a late fee for July as well because he would have only paid you $450. You cannot do this.

In the example above you would need to apply the $500 July rent payment to July’s rent and then continue to keep the $50 late fee from June “on the books” and either collect it from Joe in the future or at the end of Joe’s rental term or tenancy deduct the June $50 late fee from Joe’s security deposit (assuming your nonstandard rental provisions allow you to do so).

While it may be tempting to ignore this administrative rule you must remember that by ignoring the rule you will be in violation of ATCP 134 which would allow Joe Tenant, under §100.20(5) Wis Stats., to recover twice the amount of the loss (in this case $100) plus his costs in filing the lawsuit and his attorney’s fees (and trust me these will be more than the $100 ; )

The three rules mentioned above are administrative rules and apply statewide. You must also be aware that many municipalities have created additional rules regarding late fees. An example would be the City of Madison which specifies that a late fee cannot exceed more than 5% of the rent amount. So be sure and check the local administrative ordinances where you own your rental property.

If you have not already done so, please read Part 1 of my post on the issue of late fees here.

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