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Copyright © LawYou America, LLC, and Sherri L. Renner 2017-2018. All rights reserved.
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Beginning at the End of the Day
The ability of people to hear a range of emotions in an instant, coupled with the power to select the single string to pluck and set the tone for an experience, is one of the more compelling aspects of the human condition.
The string that Hannah Harris chose to pluck that day was indignance, which echoed in the metallic sound made by the garage door deadbolt lock as she shoved it into place.
She opened the back door of the SUV and saw that her little girl had unbuckled herself and was climbing backwards out of her car seat. Hannah reached in and slid an arm around the girl’s torso to help her, but the girl protested.
“I do it!”
“Okay.” Hannah tucked her purse under her left arm, transferred a bag of groceries from her right to her left hand, and kept her right hand free to offer to the girl once she was ready to hop from the vehicle to the concrete floor. The girl grasped Hannah’s open hand and jumped fearlessly through the door, fully trusting her mother to ensure her landing is soft and true.
The pair ascended the three steps to the interior door. The keys clinked as Hannah selected the correct one to unlock the deadbolt, and they stepped inside.
Hannah surveyed the tidy kitchen and the sparsely-furnished living room beyond and, seeing no indication that anyone else had been there since they left that morning or that anything was awry otherwise, let go of the girl’s hand, locked the door behind them, and heaved the grocery bag onto the counter while her purse thudded on the floor.
The doorbell rang.
Her earlier indignance was joined by a strum of adrenaline and a deep thumping anxiety. The quickness of the doorbell ring following her arrival home was a bit too coincidental for her comfort. The bell rang again before she moved.
She moved silently to the window in the living room. With her index finger she pushed the curtain aside only far enough for her to peek outside.
A man she did not recognize, wearing a brown shirt and brown shorts and holding a clipboard and a cardboard box, stood on the front step. Hannah’s small movement wasn’t small enough. He saw her and said, “Delivery,” while raising the box, indicating.
When Hannah did not immediately open the door, he added, “I need a signature.”
She wasn’t expecting anything in particular, but her birthday was approaching, so she decided to believe him. She unlocked and opened the door.
He handed some papers to her but kept the box. “You’ve been served.” He turned and walked swiftly away.
She sighed. She glanced at the top page: Swamp Rose Real Estate Rentals, LLC, v. Hannah Harris. Then, to the process server now about to duck into the driver’s seat of his car, she said, “I was expecting this. You didn’t have to lie, you know. I would have opened the door.”
“I’ll try to remember that for next time.”
She closed and locked the door, leaned against it, took a deep breath. She exhaled as she glanced again at the top sheet before tossing the papers onto the coffee table as she walked back toward the kitchen. The casualness of the motion was incongruous with her dry mouth, the thumping in her chest, the pressure filling her head.
She stood at the kitchen island pulling tools and ingredients together for the preparation of the evening meal she would share with her daughter. She took another deep breath to still her shaking hands, listening for that steely indignance, and tried to talk herself down.
The lawsuit was not a surprise to Hannah. She even welcomed the prospect of having her day in court because she wanted a judge to scold her landlord for being an unreasonable jackass and order him to be a normal human being. Maybe she did technically violate the lease – maybe – but the house she rented was not adequately secure. The changes she made corrected the problem, and his permission or lack of it was irrelevant to the need for the corrections. She improved his house and increased its value, and the least he could do was reimburse her the minimal out-of-pocket costs. His anger and unyielding opposition to her actions puzzled her and angered her in return, and easily roused the competitive elements in her personality.
She made his house better, and he repaid her by accusing her and filing a lawsuit that will trail her to every future rental application for the rest of her life. Damn right they’re going to court.
Court. Standing in front of a judge and speaking. Judging. Speaking. Gavel-banging.
More deep breaths. Anxiety crescendoed to a crest of panic that made her release the cooking utensils and grip the edges of the counter to steady herself against the dizziness.
Tenants and their Landlords
Please don’t put a price on my soul
My burden is heavy
My dreams are beyond control
Selected from “Dear Landlord” by Bob Dylan (source: BobDylan.com)
“Landlords” and “tenants” — the words themselves can hardly be thought or spoken without the discouraging weight of feudal history accompanying and snaking through them. It’s no wonder, then, that relationships between landlords and tenants can be fragile and, once nicked, difficult to repair.
Nowadays, of course, laws governing landlord-tenant relationships are well-developed, and frequently embody some combination of contract (the lease or rental agreement) and statutes.
The substance of landlord-tenant laws and their enforcement can vary greatly from state to state. Differences are seen in the attempts to balance the property rights of landlords against accountability for tenants against society’s interest in preventing people from becoming homeless.
In the next few chapters, we’ll take a closer look at this interplay of contract and statutory law as Hannah Harris digs in to defend herself.
For further reading, please see this article: Tenants Defending Eviction Actions Must Pay Money and Attention.
To research laws in your state, follow this link to use our Table of State Landlord-Tenant Laws.
This just did not make sense. There had to be some other reason driving her landlord. Had she done something to change his opinion of her? She was well-educated and well-employed. She had been paying the rent on time. It was only she and her little girl living there, so there were no pets, no parties, nothing that anyone would expect would result in property damage or neighbor complaints. She was every landlord’s dream tenant. Why this ugly eviction?
And why wouldn’t he just grant her that one request she had asked of him? Could that be the reason for all of this trouble? That he didn’t like her audacity of speaking up and pointing out a vulnerability in his business product? Was he just a shallow sexist? The idea found no harmony in her gut. It just wasn’t adding up. Had this really been his decision?
An hour later, the broccoli-mac-and-cheese was ready. Holly had long clambered up onto a bar stool on the other side of kitchen island from where Hannah stood chopping and stirring, and chattered about her day and life in general and how hungry she was and whether there was ice cream for dessert. Hannah smiled at her daughter and responded to her with mm-hms and you’re-so-smarts and soons and maybes. But the delight she would normally feel during these times with Holly, like the harmony of high tinkling bells and airy joy, escaped her. The foreboding, the deep bass doom, would not be denied.
Hannah picked at her meal while Holly devoured hers.
“I guess I’m not very hungry.”
“Are you sad?”
“No, darling,” Hannah said as she covered the food on her plate with plastic wrap, optimistic that her appetite would return later.
The ceiling felt a little too low. “Wanna go outside?”
“Yes!” Holly dashed to her room and returned wearing her shoes. Hannah tied them for her, grabbed the keys, unlocked the door to the backyard, and the pair stepped out into the evening air.
Holly hurried to the swing and Hannah stepped behind her to push.
Relieved to have shunned the confines of the house’s interior, Hannah turned her face to the sky to look for peace and to take in the sunset colors playing off the edges of the gauzy clouds that swirled gently and disappeared. The breeze was warm but it cooled her when it moved over her skin.
She replayed in her mind the conference she’d had with an attorney a couple of weeks before. She explained the situation, but the attorney was pessimistic about Hannah’s chances for success if a lawsuit were to be filed.
“Right here in the lease agreement that you signed, and even initialed at the bottom of this page, it says that you have to get the landlord’s permission before you make any material alterations to the premises. I think that drilling holes into doors and walls qualifies as material alterations, even if you drilled the holes to install locks into them. Why didn’t you just wait until you had his permission?”
“How long was I supposed to wait? I waited three weeks. He never responded at all.”
The attorney had looked over the lease and the landlord’s notice to Hannah about the breach of her lease.
“I think it’s likely that a judge would side with your landlord, if an eviction action is filed.”
“Don’t I have a right to be secure in my own home?”
“Of course, but it’s not as if the garage door was broken and was open all the time. And the interior door did have a lock.”
“But not a deadbolt. And anyone with the same garage door opener could have opened the door.”
“The house is more secure now, that’s for sure. But was it secure enough already? That’s the question the judge will ask.”
Holly slid off the swing and toddled to the sandbox. “Help me, Mommy!” Hannah pulled the cover to the side and the child stepped in and sat down in the sand among red, blue, and green shovels and pails.
Hannah sat in a padded, iron rocking chair alongside a round, iron table from which jutted a tall, closed umbrella. The chair squeaked as she rocked, and she focused on the predictable rhythmic sound to ground her as her anxiety grew again, billowed through her pores, and floated all around her.
The attorney didn’t believe she had a legitimate defense. She couldn’t muster confidence in an attorney who didn’t have confidence in her and the rightness of her position. And she would not hand her hard-earned money over to an attorney if she was going to lose, anyway. Besides, she would need that money for moving expenses.
“Mommy, look at my castle.”
The air thickened. Nausea rolled through Hannah’s gut and a peppery darkness dotted her vision. She sat up then bent forward and lowered her head between her knees.
What choice did she have?
A moment passed. Hannah’s mind quieted. Her pulse slowed. She knew what she had to do.
“Mommy’s okay, darling. Just a little sleepy. Are you sleepy, too?”
· Sidebar ·
Fear and Anxiety
Fear is one of the steepest barriers nonlawyers face when preparing to represent themselves in court. Fear and anxiety can take control of thoughts, drain energy, and stop people from doing the work they need to do.
But they also can be informative and motivating. Please read this post, which summarizes how some nonlawyers have successfully handled their fear.
Some people may need personalized assistance to keep their fear and anxiety from overwhelming them. For this reason we created a category in our Directory for Stress and Trauma Counselors. Time is precious, so it’s best to reach out for support as early in the process as possible.
Domestic Abuse Survivors
The need for personalized assistance is particularly true for those who are survivors of pathological intimate relationships and are enmeshed in litigation with their former partners. These situations present such significant issues that we create resources for survivors and work closely with the Institute for Relational Harm Reduction.
Share Your Story
If there’s something unique (and legal!) that you did to manage your fear and anxiety, we’d love to hear from you so we can share your story, which no doubt will help others. Please contact us through this page.
End of Part One, Chapter One.
Stay tuned for Chapter Two, “Orientation Express,” in which Hannah digs in to defend herself.
Copyright © LawYou America, LLC, and Sherri L. Renner 2017-2018. All Rights Reserved.