Stuck with an overly intrusive landlord or manager who enters your apartment without notice when you’re not at home? This can be infuriating—not to mention, a serious violation of your rights to privacy. But can you sue your landlord for unlawful entry? Depending on the circumstances, yes, but it may not be worth the time or trouble. Before seeing a lawyer or heading off to court, it’s good to understand your legal rights and what is considered unlawful access.
Landlords can always enter your apartment or rental unit when you give permission or when there is a real emergency that threatens life or property, like a serious water or gas leak. And, a landlord who believes you have abandoned the property (left without giving notice or returning the key) may legally enter without giving your notice.
Also, nearly every state has, by judicial decision or statute, decided that landlords can also enter rental property after first notifying you, in order to:
In these situations, the landlord generally must enter only at reasonable times and must give you at least the required amount of notice, usually 24 hours.
See Nolo’s State Laws on Landlord’s Access to Rental Property, for the rules in your state.
Of course, if you agree to a shorter notice period or less notice is justified—perhaps the electrician or contractor is available in a shorter time frame, the landlord is probably on solid ground for giving you shorter notice.
So, regardless of your desire to be left alone, your landlord has certain legal rights to enter your rental unit. Your failure to cooperate when the landlord is justified in entering your rental may lead to all kinds of disputes, and even termination of your tenancy or eviction.
Also, keep in mind that tour landlord is not the only one who may legally enter your rental unit. Health and other municipal inspectors may have the right randomly inspect apartment buildings. For more on this subject, see the Nolo article Rights of Inspectors and Law Enforcement to Enter Rental Property.
Landlords (or managers) who enter your home without your consent or knowledge, or without providing the advance notice required required by your state, may justify legal action. But many tenants—especially those who do not have a long-term lease or live in a city with rent control that requires just cause for eviction—try to work things out with the landlord first, by voicing their concerns in a firm (but friendly as possible) way. See the Nolo article How to Stop Your Landlord’s Illegal Entry for advice on the subject, including how to write a demand letter threatening to sue the landlord if your rights to privacy continue to be violated. Keep all copies of your communications with the landlord, including notes as to date and content of oral conversations; you will need this type of evidence should you end up suing your landlord.
If a conciliatory approach doesn’t work, and your landlord continues to enter without notice or legitimate reason, or otherwise invades your privacy, you may want to sue your landlord in small claims court for money damages on one or all of the following legal grounds.
Repeated abuses by a landlord of your right of privacy may give you a legal excuse to break your lease or end the tenancy early, without liability for further rent. If the landlord sues you for the rent after you leave, your defense can be that repeated intrusions of privacy.
One difficulty with a lawsuit against a landlord guilty of unlawful entry is that it may be hard to prove much in the way of money damages. You will need to prove to a judge how a landlord’s invasion of privacy harmed you. However, if you can show a repeated pattern of illegal entry, or even one or two especially outrageous acts (and the fact that you asked the landlord to stop his or her intrusive behavior), you may be able win in court. The more evidence you have the better—for example, emails or letters you sent the landlord regarding the privacy violations and testimony from other tenants who can attest to the landlord’s intrusive behavior.
If you are seeking less than $5,000 or $10,000, small claims court is the simplest place to start. For the basics, see the Nolo article How to Sue Your Landlord, and for small claims rules and dollar limits in your state, see Nolo’s 50-State Overview of Small Claims Rules. If you are seeking more money than your state’s small claims limit, you will need to bring your case in a court other than small claims court. In either case, you’ll probably want to consult an attorney, especially if you are using a court other than small claims.
To find an experienced tenants’ attorney, check out the landlord-tenant lawyers listed in Nolo’s Lawyer Directory. If there is an attorney fees clause in your lease or rental agreement, you may be entitled to reimbursement for your attorney fees and court costs if you win your lawsuit against your landlord; this assumes that your dispute arises out of your lease or rental agreement—for example, if your landlord fails to comply with access rules specified in your lease or rental agreement.