Is it OK to slander the landlord?

The owner of a 24 unit apartment building found out the hard way.  A tenant-at-will began telling other tenants that the president of the corporate owner of the building had illegally entered her apartment and stolen her belongings.  Although the tenant was current with rent, the landlord decided to evict her because of the statements.  The landlord served the tenant with a notice to quit asserting the basis for the eviction as “other good cause” which is authorized under the New Hampshire landlord and tenant statute.

At the district court hearing, the tenant moved to dismiss.  She argued that a landlord cannot evict a tenant for “other good cause” without first giving written notice stating future similar acts would constitute grounds for eviction.  Thus, the landlord was required to send a letter stating “if you slander me in the future, that will be grounds for eviction.”  Since the landlord admitted that no such letter was sent, the district court dismissed the case.

On appeal to our Supreme Court, the landlord argued that the advance written notice requirement should not apply on the facts.  The landlord argued that the point of the advance notice requirement was to give the tenant an opportunity to fix the problem.  Since the landlord’s reputation had already been damaged, no purpose is served by requiring further notice. 

The Supreme Court disagreed and concluded that the statute was plain and unambiguous.  Advance written notice is required and whether the tenant could have corrected her behavior does not matter.  Without that first written notice, the eviction could not proceed.

The landlord next tried to suggest how absurd such a reading of the statute was.  Under the statute, as the landlord read it, nothing would preclude sending both the advance notice and the eviction notice at the same time.  The Supreme Court rejected that approach as well.  According to the court, “a written notice warning the tenant against certain actions serves no purpose if the landlord could immediately evict based solely upon those past actions.”  Thus, the landlord must give the tenant an opportunity to correct behavior.  On these facts, that means that all 24 tenants in the property have a free pass to slander the landlord.  Only if the landlord sends notice and the tenant continues the behavior can the action justify eviction.

The court noted that certain conduct set forth in the statute does not require advance written notice.  Substantial damage to the property, failure to comply with a material term of the lease, and behavior that adversely effects the health and safety of other tenants or the landlord fall on that list.  However, each requires specific proof at trial.  If the conduct does not fit squarely within the statute and is “other good cause,” advance written notice is required.  Thus, based on this decision, it is acceptable to slander the landlord—at least once.

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