My landlord locked me out. Is this legal?

Recently on our legal forum a user asked, “I have lived in my rental property for two years. I have had some problems paying my rent and my landlord and I have had some run-ins. The other day after an argument I went to work and my landlord came and threw my belongings on the lawn and locked the door. Is this legal? What are my options?”

Legally evicting a tenant from rental property

Most landlords who have multiple properties and are landlords for a number of years will eventually have to evict a tenant from their property. With this in mind, it’s critical that they understand what they are legally allowed to do under their state’s eviction laws to force an eviction.

Landlords must determine if they have the legal right to evict

You mentioned you have had difficulty paying your rent. This alone could be sufficient to start the eviction process. In fact, there are several reasons your landlord could evict you from your property including the following:

  • You have broken the terms of your lease. Reasons can include failure to pay rent, subleasing your apartment to another person without consent, and/or maintaining animals on the property without authorization from the landlord.
  • You have damaged the property.
  • Your lease has expired and the landlord has given you notice that you need to move.

So how do you know if your landlord has the right to evict you from your property? First, review your lease contract. Next, review the Landlord and Tenant Act for your state and determine what steps your landlord must take prior to the eviction.

What steps must your landlord take to legally evict you?

Assuming you have broken the lease agreement and failed to pay your rent your landlord may have the right to begin the eviction process. This does not include, however, simply changing the locks and throwing your possessions out the door. Let’s take a look at the legal steps for an eviction in Texas (review your state laws for the specific steps your landlord must take in your state):

  1. Give the tenant notice to vacate. Under Texas laws, the landlord must give you notice prior to filing an eviction lawsuit. After a landlord gives notice the tenant may be able to talk to them and resolve any issues prior to the landlord filing an eviction suit.
  2. File a forcible entry and detainer lawsuit against the tenant. If your landlord files a suit against you the suit papers are served by a constable. You have the legal right to fight the lawsuit, but if you do and your lose, the information will become a permanent part of your tenant history record for future rental applications.
  3. Answer the eviction suit. You must read the papers carefully and determine if you need to appear in court or if you can answer the suit notice in writing or over the phone.
  4. Appear at the eviction hearing. The eviction hearing is like other court cases. Make sure you take evidence to support your case including a copy of the lease or any pictures, letters, documents, receipts, or witnesses to show the judge as evidence.

Defenses against eviction can include a defective notice to vacate, proving the eviction case was filed too soon, proving the landlord has discriminated against you, or showing the landlord has retaliated against you for asking for certain repairs.

If you win your case the landlord may appeal the court’s decision. If you lose your case you can also appeal the decision or simply move out.

Bottom line:

Failing to pay your rent is a violation of your lease agreement and your landlord probably does have the legal right to evict you from your property. What he does not have the right to do, however, is change your locks, remove your property, or shut off your utilities. If your landlord took any of these steps without following the legal steps for eviction in your state he could find himself in serious legal trouble.

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