Can my old landlord hire a debt collector to sue me for moving out of my apartment early?
A debt collector is allowed to contact someone to collect on a valid debt. Before determining whether a debt collector is allowed to contact someone in a particular situation, the underlying legal situation first needs to be evaluated.
When two people enter into a lease to rent an apartment, they usually sign a contract to be jointly liable to the landlord for payment of the rent. If either party breaks the lease, then the landlord has the right to sue either party for recovery of all the lost rent. That lawsuit can include late fees or other charges authorized by the lease. The legal doctrine that allows a landlord to sue either tenant (or both tenants, at the choice of the landlord) is called “joint and several liability.” Rather than suing, a landlord can appropriately place the account with a collection agency to collect on the unpaid rent.
A separate contractual relationship governs the relationship between tenants. Usually, two people entering into a lease agree to split the cost, where each side agrees to pay a certain amount towards the total rent. If one of the tenants stops making payments, then the other tenant has a claim for breach of contract against the non-paying tenant. The paying tenant can even pay the entire rent due to the landlord themselves to prevent a breach of the lease, and then sue the non-payer for breaching their agreement to split the cost.
Assuming valid contracts exists, moving out of town is generally not a good enough reason to get out of a lease. There is no requirement that the landlord agree to allow someone out of a lease early, and no requirement for the landlord to agree to shift all of the payment responsibility onto the other tenant. There is also no requirement for the other tenant to agree to accept all the liability for the entire lease and allow the other tenant to move out early. It would be pretty unfair to the roommate left behind to have to pay all of the money to the landlord each month when they entered into the lease thinking they would only have to pay half. Thus, if one of the tenants moves out early, that person should not be surprised if they are sued by both the landlord and/or the other roommate for amounts not paid.
That all said, landlords have a duty to mitigate their damages by trying to rent out the property immediately after eviction. They cannot wait around for months in order for their damages to compound and then sue for a much bigger number than if they took appropriate steps to lease the unit to someone else immediately. In our Franklin County, Ohio, for example, landlords are generally only able to collect about two months of future rent as damages even if the lease had six months left on it. The landlord can also sue for fees and costs allowed by the lease or allowed by the law. That would require looking at local law, and raising failure to mitigate damages in the court case, probably through a lawyer.
One final note on the issue of whether a debt collector is acting appropriately. A debt collector is only allowed to demand that amount of money which is actually owed and is bona fide and reasonable. Thus, if the debt collector is adding fees or costs which are not allowed by the terms of the lease (or are prohibited by law), then the debt collector might still be liable under the FDCPA for collecting on an inflated debt. That kind of lawsuit could wipe out the rent claimed as due and cover your attorneys’ fees, even if the balance of the underlying debt was otherwise valid. An experienced consumer lawyer could help there, which is what we do. Call (614) 944-5219 if you are in Ohio.