Calculating Emotional Distress Damages In Tenant Rights Cases: Can You Sue Your Landlord?
Perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to understand when learning how the legal system works is the way in which the law determines the harm someone has suffered and attributing a dollar amount that is supposed to make them whole. Emotions like sadness, pain, loss, anxiety, and fear are difficult to describe, let alone measure. But that is what judges and juries across the country are asked to do every day. One question the tenant rights attorneys at Tenant Law Group are asked regularly then is naturally about these kinds of damages: can you sue a landlord for causing you emotional distress?
Before we go too deeply into that question though, we should first revisit some topics we discussed in the past. In previous posts, we have gone over the covenant of quiet enjoyment and the warranty of habitability.
These are contract terms that modern law assumes are part of every residential rental agreement. Aside from containing those terms the landlord must meet however, the rental agreement by simply connecting the landlord and tenant creates a duty of care between the parties. Breaching that duty and in a way that harms the tenant can create its own reason for the landlord to owe their tenant for the same bad act: since the covenant of quiet enjoyment and warranty of habitability are legal requirements that they must follow, unreasonably failing to do so means the landlord is also likely negligent as well and can be required to pay a different kind of damages beyond what would be required by a simple breach of contract.
When a party breaches a contract, they become responsible for making good the harm done. This means that if they are found to have breached the contract, they will be required to give the other side the benefit of their bargain. In tenant rights cases, this usually leads to a refund of rent, and perhaps rent differential to balance the lost value the tenant misses out on by having to move against their will. If a landlord is found to have been negligent, they must go further than the benefit of the bargain: they must make the tenant whole, including from physical, mental, and emotional damages.
That leads to the question of how exactly to calculate damages for mental and emotional distress. And unfortunately, the answer is that it really is a question for the judgment of the finder of fact: usually a jury. The amount increases based on the severity of the harm, as well as the amount of time the tenant was forced to endure it. When the condition forces a tenant out of a rent-controlled unit they have lived in for a long time, the displacement from the home they have known for a large portion of their life and that they have expected to live out the rest of their years in could also increase the value.
The question of whether a tenant can recover mental and emotional distress damages for the landlord’s behavior therefore leads to that most lawyerly of answers: it depends. This is definitely an area where the knowledge and experience of a specialized tenant lawyer will make a big difference. Consulting with one before taking your landlord to task might make all the difference.