May 6, 2008
COLLECTION OF PAST-DUE RENT AND PAYMENT OF ATTORNEYS' FEES
By: Sandra Norman-Eady, Chief Attorney
You asked (1) why landlords cannot receive a monetary judgment in housing court, presumably for back rent or property damages and (2) whether a court can award attorneys' fees to tenants who are represented in housing cases by Legal Services attorneys.
Housing Courts can and do issue monetary judgments. By law, housing courts have jurisdiction over:
1. summary process (eviction), landlord and tenant, property conversion, and forcible entry and detainer actions;
2. appeals from fair rent commission decisions;
3. actions and administrative appeals involving housing discrimination;
4. state or municipal health, housing, building, electrical, plumbing, fire, and sanitation code violations;
5. all actions for back rent, damages, return of security deposits, and other relief arising out of the parties' relationship as landlord and tenant or owner and occupant; and
6. all other actions concerning the health, safety, or welfare of any occupant of any place used or intended for use as a place of human habitation if the action arises from or is related to occupancy or the right to occupancy (CGS § 47a-68).
Many landlords mistakenly believe that an eviction judgment against a tenant in housing court also serves as a judgment for such things as back rent and damages. Although the eviction judgment may be based on the tenant's failure to pay rent, it is not a means for collecting past due rent.
A landlord who secures an eviction judgment can file a separate civil collection action in housing court to recover back rent or other money damages. The landlord could also opt to bring the civil collection action in small claims court if the amount sought is $5,000 or less. Small claims court was centralized on May 15, 2006. The new centralized small claims office allows claimants, including landlords, to file small claims matters in one centralized location.
Courts may award attorneys' fees in housing cases if the lease agreements in question provide for it or the award is authorized by law. Landlord/tenant law caps the attorneys' fees a lease may require a tenant to pay a landlord's attorney at 15% of any judgment for money damages (CGS § 47a-4 (a) (7)). Under landlord/tenant laws, (1) tenants may recover reasonable attorneys' fees in actions based on a landlord's failure to supply essential services (CGS § 47a-13) and (2) landlords may recover reasonable attorneys' fees in actions to compel access to rented units for inspections or repairs, to provide services, or to exhibit the unit (CGS § 47a-18).
Courts may also award reasonable attorneys' fees in housing matters (1) whenever a party, without reasonable cause, makes allegations in pleadings that are later found to be untrue (CGS § 52-99); (2) whenever a plaintiff prevails in a small claims matter transferred to the Superior Court docket on the defendant's motion (CGS § 52-251a); and (3) to prevailing parties for counsel at any hearing that is reasonable and necessary to enforce rights pursuant to a post judgment procedure involving a claim or defense that the court determines was made to harass or solely for delay (CGS § 52-400c).
Courts have held that attorneys' fees are appropriate even when a party is represented, without fee, by a nonprofit legal services organization (see Blum v. Stenson, 465 U.S. 886 (1984) attorneys' fees awarded in a civil rights action and calculated according to the prevailing market rate and Benavides v. Benavides, 11 Conn. App. 150 (1987) attorneys' fees proper in family matters).