Landlords, Tenants and Self-Help Eviction
By Frank G. Adams
Upon signing a lease, either for a residence, or your business, two sides agree to an arrangement in which the owner of a piece of property is giving the possession, use and enjoyment of that property to another. That right of being able to possess and use the leased property is the cornerstone of a lease agreement.
However, because we do not live in a perfect world, that arrangement often breaks down. For whatever reason, a tenant may be unable to pay the rent on time or is unable to fulfill his end of the lease arrangement, and the landlord wants to terminate the relationship. What can the landlord do in that situation? That is when the eviction procedures found in the Pennsylvania Landlord Tenant Act come into play.
The current Pennsylvania Landlord Tenant Act was passed in 1951 and has been amended several times since then. Along with the passage of that Act, the old remedies that a landlord had to regain possession of his property were severely limited. Those old "common law" remedies included self-help evictions. A so called "self-help" eviction is an action taken by a landlord, other than the accepted judicial process, which serves to evict or has a tendency to evict a tenant. This could potentially encompass a multitude of actions, such as changing the locks, moving a tenant's belongings onto the sidewalk, or attempting to turn off the utilities.
Although our state Supreme Court has not yet had an occasion to specifically rule that a landlord cannot engage in self-help methods of eviction, several Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas, and even federal courts interpreting our state law, have held that a landlord cannot resort to such methods, but must follow the steps outlined in the Landlord Tenant Act, which include providing adequate notice to the tenant before filing a judicial eviction proceeding with a magistrate. That is because when the Legislature enacted the Landlord Tenant Act, it envisioned it as a complete and exclusive remedy for a landlord seeking to vindicate his rights to regain possession. Some of the reasons for our courts interpreting the Landlord Tenant Act in that way is that it lessens the possibility for potentially dangerous confrontations and, given that a tenant's shelter is potentially being taken away, it provides an opportunity for a tenant to present defenses or otherwise be heard on why the eviction may be inappropriate. A tenant may also be able to bring suit for losses incurred if he is wrongfully evicted from a leased property. Although these protections may often seem to put a landlord in an unfair position of having a tenant who is not paying rent remain in the leased property, the Act and the court rules governing eviction actions do attempt to even out the balance of fairness by requiring relatively quick hearings and that a tenant pay rent into court if they want to appeal a magistrate's eviction decision.
Terminating the landlord tenant relationship and regaining possession of leased property can sometimes be taxing for a landlord who may have perfectly legitimate reasons for ending that relationship. However, landlords should keep in mind that the law has provided an avenue for proceeding to regain possession of the leased property and resorting to self-help methods could put the landlord at risk of potential liability to a tenant.
Peacock Keller & Ecker, LLP • 70 East Beau Street • Washington, PA 15301 • 724-222-4520