One of the most common forms of litigation in Virginia courts are landlord-tenant cases. Landlord-tenant relationships are some of the most common contractual relationships that exist and the relationship often sours and creates problems that end up in court.
The landlord-tenant relationship is based on an agreement, so the rights and responsibilities of the parties flow from that agreement. Oftentimes the agreement is not in writing, in which case the parties’ understanding will be an oral one. Because the oral agreement between the parties tends not to be very formal, the law will assume, absent evidence to the contrary, that the lease exists on a month-to-month basis.
It should come as little surprise that one of the main problem areas in the landlord-tenant relationship is the tenant’s failure to pay rent in a timely manner. When that occurs, a landlord can serve a pay or quit notice, which is a letter notifying the tenant that he or she has either five days to pay the rent or else vacate the property. In the event the tenant neither pays nor vacates, the landlord can proceed with an eviction action by filing an unlawful detainer in the general district court.
The unlawful detainer will have a return date scheduled at the local general district court approximately 30 days after the unlawful detainer is filed. At the return date, the parties can inform the court whether they dispute the plaintiff’s allegations, and, if so, the parties can set a trial date to be held approximately two to four weeks later. When at the court for the return date, the parties can also request that pleadings be prepared by the parties and filed before the trial, in which case the plaintiff — usually the landlord — will file a Bill of Particulars, and the defendant — usually the tenant — will file a Grounds of Defense. The pleadings give more specific information about the allegations, claims, and defenses of the parties.
At trial, the judge will want to hear evidence regarding the terms of the landlord-tenant relationship, the allegations regarding any breaches of those terms of the relationship, and the relief the non-breaching party is seeking as a result. After hearing the evidence, the judge will issue a ruling from the bench, likely determining whether the lease remains in effect, whether the landlord is entitled to possession, and, in cases of unpaid rent, the amount of an award of back rent and court costs. Also, if called for by the contract the judge can award a reasonable amount of attorney’s fees to the prevailing party.
The trial judge has authority to award possession in the event of a tenant’s default or to let ten days pass before a writ of possession can be executed. In the ten days following the court’s ruling, either the tenant or the landlord has an automatic right to appeal the case provided they follow the requirements of the court, pay any bonds and writ costs, and take the steps necessary to perfect the appeal. If appealed, the case will then proceed at the circuit court where the matter should be tried on an expedited basis.
Although this process may not sound very complicated, landlord tenant disputes can turn into legally confusing disputes that are resolved on technicalities. This is especially true for landlords and leases that are governed by the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. When the Act applies, many provisions in the contract may yield to conflicting provisions in the Act, thus further complicating the issues between the parties. Given this complicated scenario, it is important for landlords to understand whether the Act applies to their lease before instituting legal proceedings.
If you have a landlord-tenant dispute and would like to discuss it with a lawyer experienced with landlord tenant litigation, please call MartinWren, P.C. attorney Robert E. Byrne, Jr. at 434-817-3100 or contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bob currently serves as the President and managing attorney of MartinWren, P.C. where he practices as a Charlottesville Personal Injury Lawyer, and practices business litigation, including landlord tenant disputes.