Roommates

11.12.2018 | 4 Minute Read | By Michael Hochman

But what if it’s so bad the legal system has to get involved? Can your roommate sue you?In America, anyone can sue anyone if you pay the filing fee, so yes, your roommate can sue you. But because of how leases are set up, it’s difficult for them to win.

Who is responsible for what

When you and your roommate sign a lease, you’re jointly responsible for the sum total of the rent and all the terms of the lease. Most leases spell this out as being “jointly and severally” liable.

Regardless of the number of roommates, you’re responsible to the landlord as a group but only responsible as individuals to each other. Any agreement relating to whom is accountable for what is between you and your roommate(s), and should be in writing.

It’s up to the two (or more) of you to decide the details, like who pays more if one bedroom is bigger or by what date you must send in your rent check. With very rare exceptions, your lease will not state you owe x dollars and your roommate owes y, or you are responsible for this and they’re responsible for that. All your landlord cares about is getting paid in full by someone. Everyone must follow all the terms, and if one person doesn’t follow them, that means no one is following them.

1. Suing you for unpaid rent

If you’re not paying your share of the rent, or are withholding your portion over a disagreement, your roommate can sue you in small claims court for your portion. As mentioned earlier, your landlord doesn’t care where the money comes from as long as it comes in. So, if you don’t pay, your roommate is left to pay the full amount.

So now, you’re in court. If you’ve simply refused to pay, the judge will need a valid reason why not. If you’re withholding payment because of a disagreement with your roommate, the small claims court can arbitrate and return a verdict stating if your roommate does a (fixes your stereo they broke, stops throwing ragers on weeknights), then you do b, which is pay your share. Or they can simply tell you to figure it out like adults and dismiss the case.

If you haven’t paid due to financial hardship, the judge can arbitrate a binding payment plan between you and your roommate so you can catch up to back payments. And if you truly did pay and your roommate says you haven’t, you’re going to have to show up with evidence of payment such as a canceled check or deposit slip.

But none of this absolves you from the wrath of your landlord. Regardless of the reason you haven’t paid your half, your landlord can still evict both of you for non-payment because their concern is being paid in full on the first.

And remember, your roommate can’t ‘evict’ you, only your landlord can. And if it’s for non-payment, it will most likely be the both of you out on the street, regardless of who didn’t pay their share.

2. Suing you for moving out

If your lease says you can’t vacate the apartment without notice, that applies to you as a group, not each individually. If just you alone move out without warning, you as a group haven’t broken your lease – your roommates still occupy the unit under terms of the lease and nothing’s changed legally.

What you have done is put your now-former roommates in a position where they’re responsible for the cost of rent and utilities without you, because even if your name is on the lease, those left behind are still responsible to follow the lease agreement in full. You can see why your roommates would be upset.

Just like the rent, your landlord doesn’t care how many people live in the apartment, as long as they get paid. So your former roommates’ only recourse to get back the rent you walked out on and stuck them with is to try to sue you in small claims court.

Unless your lease specifically says every person listed on the lease must remain until the expiration of the lease or you have a separate written agreement with your roommates saying you won’t move out before the end of the lease, your litigious roommates don’t have much of a legal leg to stand on.

A sympathetic small claims court judge might decide to hold you liable for rent since you moved out and until your ex-roommates find someone to take your place, but the judge is not obligated to. The bottom line is you can certainly move out on your roommates without notice, leaving them holding the bag. But doing so certainly won’t win you any popularity contests.

3. Suing you for getting everyone evicted

Conversely, if something you did causes everyone to get evicted, you might be much more liable because of actual damages. If you’re the reason your entire apartment is thrown out, that’s a real hardship you’ve put on your roommates and they can certainly sue you.

In most states, a landlord can toss you individually or boot everyone because of what you did – it’s often up to them to decide. But if what you did was so egregious that everyone lost the apartment, and your roommates didn’t do anything wrong, expect a real lawsuit from a real lawyer to come your way, as this has risen to a station above small claims. This is big claims, and not just about finances. Eviction can cause job loss, a hit to your credit rating or even homelessness, and you did that to them.

If you’ve broken your lease, your landlord has every right to evict you and your roommates. Your roommates probably have no legal recourse with the landlord, so they’d have no choice but court. So if you’ve done something (or not done something) that causes everyone to be removed from the apartment, go talk to your landlord, cop to what you alone have done and ask him very kindly and nicely not to take it out on your roommates. It’s the right thing to do, and might keep you out of court.

A note about subletting

Keep in mind, everything above concerns an equal roommate, or legally a “cotenant,” who has signed the lease. If you’re subletting to a roommate, that complicates each situation, depending on the agreement you have with your subletter.

If you don’t have an agreement with them, you’re most likely out of luck. And if you have a subletter and your lease states you can’t have one, you’re definitely out of luck.

Please note, laws and regulations differ from state to state, municipality to municipality. This is a generalized discussion. Be sure to check your local laws and statutes for details.

This content is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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