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What Is an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit?

Sarah Edwards | November 07, 2022

Sarah Edwards
Legal Expert
Sarah Edwards, BS

Sarah Edwards is a professional researcher and writer specializing in legal content. An Emerson College alumna, she holds a Bachelor of Science in Communication from the prestigious Boston institution.

Edited by Hannah Locklear

Hannah Locklear
Editor at SoloSuit
Hannah Locklear, BA

Hannah Locklear is SoloSuit’s Marketing and Impact Manager. With an educational background in Linguistics, Spanish, and International Development from Brigham Young University, Hannah has also worked as a legal support specialist for several years.

Summary: An unlawful detainer lawsuit happens when a landlord files a lawsuit against their tenant for violating their lease. An unlawful detainer is also known as an eviction lawsuit. If you’re in the middle of an unlawful detainer lawsuit, here are some basic defenses you can use in your case: repair and deduct, denial of an offer, changed circumstances, or a violation.

Being on the receiving end of an unlawful detainer lawsuit can be extremely stressful, especially if you’re fighting to stay in your home or apartment. If your landlord is successful with their legal claim, you’ll have to find a new place to live, which can be difficult if you don’t have good credit.

If you decide to fight an unlawful detainer lawsuit, it will be helpful to your case to understand exactly what it is and how it works.

Who can file an unlawful detainer lawsuit?

Any landlord who believes that a tenant is violating their rental agreement can file an unlawful detainer lawsuit. An unlawful detainer lawsuit notifies the tenant of potential eviction from their rental home or apartment.

Landlords can evict tenants for any of the following:

  • Staying at the premises after their lease ends without another agreement in place
  • Violating the terms of the lease agreement
  • Failing to pay rent on time

Other people not on the lease may also be subject to an unlawful detainer lawsuit. For instance, a landlord can file an unlawful detainer claim against a tenant’s family or friends staying in the apartment without the landlord’s approval. The tenant might also face eviction if they sublet the space to someone else without the landlord’s consent.

What is the legal process for filing an unlawful detainer lawsuit?

If a landlord believes they need to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit, they must follow their state’s rules for eviction. Typically, they’ll have to begin the lawsuit by filing a complaint against the individual in the appropriate jurisdiction.

On the court date, the landlord and the tenant can present their arguments in front of a judge. Once the judge hears from both individuals, they’ll make a decision. If the judge favors the landlord, they’ll grant a court order allowing them to remove the tenant from the premises.

If the tenant or subtenant wins the case, they’ll be able to remain on the property as long as they comply with the terms of the lease agreement.

Can a landlord change the locks to force out a tenant?

Forcing a tenant to leave the premises is illegal without a court order. The landlord cannot act against the tenant by doing things like changing the locks or forcibly removing them from the property as long as the legal proceedings are ongoing. By doing so, they may violate state or local laws.

Do unlawful detainer lawsuits take a long time to settle?

Courts usually give priority to unlawful detainer lawsuits. Typically, a judge will hear an unlawful detainer claim within 10 to 30 days of the filing. If the judge gives the court order to the landlord, the landlord can take immediate action to remove the tenant.

A case may take longer to resolve if the tenant (defendant) files an Answer with the court. In their Answer, the tenant can use various defenses to fight the lawsuit and retain the right to stay on the property. If the tenant files an Answer, the case will go to trial.

What can defendants do to fight an unlawful detainer lawsuit?

There are several arguments that a defendant can use to fight an unlawful detainer lawsuit. Some of the most common include retaliation and discrimination.

For instance, the defendant may claim that the landlord refuses to renew their lease because they harbor a bias against their religion. In that case, the judge may decide in favor of the tenant, and the judge might order the landlord to provide them with a new lease.

Other potential defenses include repair and deduct, denial of an offer, changed circumstances, or a violation.

A repair and deduct defense is appropriate for tenants who refuse to pay their rent because the landlord hasn’t repaid them for repairs they made to the property.

A tenant who notifies the landlord of a roof leak reasonably expects the landlord to make repairs. If the landlord doesn’t act promptly, the tenant can make the repairs independently.

The tenant will expect the landlord to deduct their costs from their regular rental payment. If the landlord fails to do so and the tenant doesn’t make their rent payment, they can use a defense of repair and deduct.

A denial of an offer occurs when the tenant tries to pay the landlord the due rent for overstaying their lease, but the landlord refuses to accept it. Other defenses are appropriate when the landlord violates local laws or changes the lease termination.

Each state has unique unlawful detainer laws

To learn more about your state’s laws on eviction and unlawful detainer, check out this list of State Laws on Termination for Nonpayment of Rent. You will be better prepared to fight your unlawful detainer lawsuit if you understand the laws governing your state.

Learn more about how to fight an eviction with SoloSuit.

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