Arbitration in Pennsylvania Landlord-Tenant Cases (Part Two)
WHAT A NUISANCE! EVICTING A TENANT TO AVOID PAYING FOR POLICE VISITS
The City of Pittsburgh and at least one other municipality (Etna) have enacted ordinances that enable the municipality to declare properties a nuisance after three police calls. The matters can be relatively trivial, such as loud domestic arguments. If the unruly tenant has a neighbor who likes to call the police to solve noise problems, three strikes or more can accrue before the landlord is even aware that a problem exists.
At that point, the landlord is required to solve the problem or pay a fine every time the police are summoned. The most obvious solution is to terminate the lease.
However, if the landlord wishes to terminate the lease for non-economic reasons, the lease must have a provision that permits such a termination and it must be plead in the complaint. For example, if the rent is being paid by Section 8, there will probably be no arrearage and thus no grounds for early termination unless another lease provision has been violated. Section 8 tenants are often eligible for free representation by Legal Services. These lawyers know their stuff and will make short work of a poorly plead, poorly proven case involving termination on non-economic grounds. Moreover, the landlord is required by statute to give proper notice to Section 8 of the lease violation and failure to do so could put the landlord back at square one, forced to start over.
THE ARBITRATION HEARING
An arbitration hearing is less formal that a trial before a judge, but more formal than a hearing before a Magisterial District Judge. Too many self-represented parties learn this fact for the first time while trying to present their case.
Although the arbitrators may be understanding and even assist bewildered litigants (up to a point), rules of procedure and evidence do apply and a self-represented party may discover that he/she is unable to present the essential elements of the case, even after repeated attempts, and never really comprehend why. For example, under Rule of Civil Procedure 1305, many kinds of documents can be introduced into evidence without the kind of foundation that may be required in a trial before a judge. These can include repair estimates when the party who prepared the estimate is not present to testify and be cross examined. But such documents must be furnished to the opponent at least 20 days prior to the hearing. If the opponent is represented by counsel, a meritorious case can be derailed under Rule 1305 before it even starts.
Be advised that, in Allegheny County, at least one or probably two of the three arbitrators will be lawyers with significant experience in landlord tenant matters and will have heard numerous other cases. They will understand the issues and evidence properly presented, but they are not mind readers. Your case must still be organized, concise and properly presented. If you put them to sleep, obscure the message with irrelevancies or squabbles over small points or make any of the blunders set forth above (or others too numerous to mention), you could turn a winning case into a loser. It happens every day.
SLAMMING THE DOOR ON NO SHOWS.
If the other party doesn’t show up, you may still be required to present the basic elements of your case. When you do, an award will almost certainly be entered in your favor. Then, assuming that the complaint contains certain magic language at the beginning (this language is in the form the prothonotary provides), you will be entitled to close off the possibility of an appeal to common pleas court.
The arbitration staff will provide you with another form which you will take to the motions judge. After hearing some bare bones testimony, the judge will enter a verdict in your favor — closing off further appeal.
Now, if the other party shows up later with an excuse, you may be required to appear again before the judge to argue against the other party’s motion to reconsider. Heart attacks or car accidents on the way to court will probably be good enough to get them a new hearing. Poor communication or record keeping will not.
THE COST OF DOING BUSINESS
Representing yourself before a Magisterial District Judge is probably safe enough. Either party can appeal. However, as pointed out above with concrete examples, there are significant risks in being your own lawyer at the arbitration level.
The landlord should expect that, over the course of time, some tenants must be evicted and the cost of performing this function should be factored into the equation, just as some furnaces or pipes will break, requiring the immediate expenditure of funds.
In the tenant’s case, the decision whether to hire a lawyer may boil down to costs versus potential benefits. If the result is inevitable and you need two months (with rent paid in escrow) to find a new place, hiring an attorney will not change the outcome. But if there are real and substantial damages claimed by either party, or if there is a dispute over the distribution of the security deposit, hiring an attorney may make sense.
In addition, after the case is over, a landlord may be entitled to garnish the ex-tenant’s wages. This option is relatively new and is not yet used very often. There are limiting factors to be considered and when the judgment is relatively small or the ex-tenant is receiving modest wages, the economic factors may or may not make garnishment possible or worth doing. Nevertheless, this potential changes the game. A tenant may wish to make a payment arrangement to avoid a potential wage garnishment and a landlord may wish to settle to reduce cost of recovering the judgment amount. Lawyers can help the parties reach a settlement and write an agreement that will accomplish the task.