It is not uncommon for landlords to withhold all or a portion of the security deposit, as well as make claims above and beyond the deposit for damages and the cost of repairs to make the leased premises rentable again. Oklahoma Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (“ORLTA”) Title 41 O.S. § 115.B provides for a 45-day deadline – after the termination of the lease and written demand by the tenant—to refund the deposit or provide an itemized statement for the amounts withheld.
So, you asked for your deposit back and the landlord sent you an itemized list of deductions from the deposit, and perhaps even made claims above and beyond the deposit. Once you have the itemized list in hand, likely it will be confusing. There are no standards in Oklahoma for how to itemize the deductions, and the nature of the charges may be obscured. Title 41 O.S. § 132.A simply states that the landlord shall “cause the work to be done in a workmanlike manner and thereafter submit the itemized bill for the actual and reasonable cost or the fair and reasonable value thereof….”
So, what if the landlord did not provide you with copies of records documenting that the repair or replacement work was actually performed for the amounts claimed, and you suspect that the charges are fabricated for the purpose of simply taking your deposit? A new Oklahoma Court of Appeals case interpreting 41 O.S. § 132.A makes it clear that a landlord may not recover “damages for work yet to commence (i.e., for work for which there were only estimates or quotes, rather than invoices).” In MORRIS v. BEHRENS, 2021 OK CIV APP 35, the Court affirmed the judgment of Tulsa County Small Claims Court that the ORLTA entitles a landlord to recover damages from a tenant only for work the landlord causes to be done in a workmanlike manner.
If you are confident that your landlord did not do the work, or caused plumbing or HVAC work to be done not to code by an unlicensed handyman (i.e., not in a workmanlike manner), MORRIS v. BEHRENS allows you to advise the landlord that there is no basis for collection of all or a portion of his claims, and that should the landlord refer the account to a credit-reporting agency, you reserve the right to commence an action under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act against the landlord, and the collection agency, for placing a negative record on your credit report without justification.
Should you follow this process, you may have created a paper trail for refuting the landlord’s claims in Small Claims Court and protecting your credit rating. This could also be a preliminary step prior to filing your own Small Claims Court action for return of your deposit.
Tenants may think that there is a landlord-friendly bias to the courts. But, MORRIS v. BEHRENS teaches us that both the Small Claims Court and the Court of Civil Appeals will not be swayed by the residential real estate industry and “will not decide cases based on desired outcomes. Instead, we seek to interpret and apply the law as written.” MORRIS, at ¶9.
The ORLTA is sometimes complex and hard to fathom, and it may seem that our politicians favor landlords and write laws that don’t benefit tenants. But the courts are open to everyone, and MORRIS v. BEHRENS shows that landlords don’t always get their way.