A rash of lawsuits against landlords under the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance has led to questions over whether the ordinance, which governs relations between apartment dwellers and their landlords in the city of Chicago, may need reform.
“The ordinance is certainly in need of a rewrite or tightening up or fixing. There are a number of questions that are gray areas in it,” said attorney Richard Magnone, a partner at Reda Ciprian Magnone LLC, a Chicago law firm specializing in landlord-tenant law. “And if a landlord tries to interpret the ordinance themselves, then chances are they can run afoul of it.”
In recent weeks, three separate class action lawsuits were filed in Cook County Circuit Court under the ordinance. And those build on a number of other class actions brought in Cook County in preceding months over such matters as how much notice a landlord needs to give before performing maintenance or repairs to a building or a unit, and how landlords have handled security deposits.
The new lawsuits, filed in late January and early February, specifically alleged landlords had not given tenants a copy of the Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance or had not provided a notice of tenants’ rights under the ordinance. The ordinance states that the commissioner of the department of housing will prepare a summary of the rights, obligations, and remedies for tenants and landlords and that the landlord will be required to attach this summary along with each rental agreement. It also states that the commission will publish guidelines for security deposits and their associated interest rates, and that the landlord will again be responsible for sharing that information with tenants.
The Chicago ordinance was enacted in 1985, and takes a stricter line of enforcement than the laws governing the rest of Illinois. In the rest of the state, to recover attorney fees, court costs and penalties from a case, a tenant has to prove that the landlord willfully broke the law. In Chicago, the tenant need only prove that the law was broken, regardless of intent.
“They certainly can go into court and defend themselves; however most of the time these cases are pretty cut and dried,” Magnone said. “In terms of defending those cases, I won’t take them on if I know my client has a losing case, because I’m doing my client a disservice."
The ordinance has created challenges for landlords that have impacted how they do business in Chicago, which has unintended consequences for tenants.
The complex guidelines on deposits are a prime example, Magnone noted. Many landlords in Chicago have stopped taking deposits and are opting instead for non-refundable move-in fees, he said.
“So technically a tenant who is a good tenant and wasn’t going to do damage, is paying because of this overly zealous law,” Magnone said.
Because there are fewer security deposit cases, tenants and their lawyers are targeting other violations, he said. Failing to provide a proper summary of tenants’ rights does not carry a large penalty, but with attorney fees and court costs, the awards for plaintiff’s attorneys can be large.
The burden of payment falls on the landlord, Magnone said. Under the ordinance, tenants can recoup legal fees when they win a case, but landlords cannot.
“For a long time I’ve been advising my landlords who don’t want to be professional landlords to sell their properties and get out of Chicago," Magnone said.