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Sexual Assault and Early lease termination

Early Lease Termination

What does “early lease termination” mean?

According to most residential leases, if the tenant moves out before the end of the lease term, they have to pay a penalty to the landlord. However, in some circumstances Texas law allows survivors of sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, stalking and parents of child sexual abuse victims, to break their leases early without having to pay that penalty.

When can a sexual assault or stalking survivor break a lease early without a penalty?

Certain parts of the law only apply to leases signed on or after January 1, 2014, so it’s important to consult with a lawyer. In general, tenants who were sexually assaulted or stalked on the leased premises (or any dwelling on the leased premises) must give their landlord notice that they are breaking their leases within 6 months of the offense. However, there are several other requirements a tenant must satisfy.

How should I notify my landlord that I plan to break my lease due to a sexual assault, stalking or domestic violence?

Here is a sample lease termination letter for a victim of sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, or a parent of a child sexual abuse victim, which you may complete and provide to your landlord.

Call an AVOICE attorney at 1-888-343-4414 if you have questions or need assistance completing your letter. For stalking victims, the requirements are slightly different. Victims of family violence also have the right to terminate their leases.  If you are a victim of family violence and would like assistance terminating your lease or finding a domestic violence center near you, you can contact the Texas Council on Family Violence at 512-794-1133.

What kind of documentation does the tenant need?

For victims of sexual assault, attempted sexual assault and parents of child sexual abuse victims, there are 4 kinds of documentation landlords must accept:

(1) Documentation from a health care services provider who examined the tenant,

(2) Documentation from a mental health service provider who examined or evaluated the tenant,

(3) Documentation from a rape crisis center or sexual assault program that provided services to the tenant, 

(4) A final sexual assault protective order issued by a judge under Chapter 7A, Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. For stalking victims, there are 2 options. First, you can provide the landlord with a copy of a stalking protective order. Or, if you don’t have a protective order, you can give the landlord one of the 4 kinds of documentation in the previous paragraph, PLUS a copy of a police incident report that documents the stalking.

What if the lease agreement doesn’t say the tenant is allowed to break the lease early following a sexual assault or stalking?

It doesn’t matter. The law, found at Texas Property Code § 92.0161, applies no matter what the landlord puts in the lease. Even if the lease says the tenant gives up all rights to terminate early, that provision is invalid. In fact, if a landlord fails to put certain language in the lease, the tenant has even more rights.All residential leases must contain this, or substantially similar language: “Tenants may have special statutory rights to terminate the lease early in certain situations involving certain sexual offenses or stalking.” If that language is not in the lease, and the tenant breaks the lease early under this new law, then the tenant is additionally not liable for past-due rent owed at the time of lease termination.

After a tenant gives 30-days’ notice, does s/he have to keep paying rent?

Yes. If a tenant gives a landlord 30 days’ notice that s/he intends to break the lease early after a sexual assault or stalking, the tenant remains responsible for paying rent until the lease is officially terminated 30 days later.

 

Does the tenant have to stay in the rental unit for 30 days if they feel unsafe?

No. Tenants should always put safety first. However, physically leaving the rental unit does not mean the tenant can stop paying rent (see above). Tenants who plan to break their leases early after a sexual assault or stalking should always make sure their landlords know if they will be living somewhere else before the lease is officially terminated. If a landlord believes the tenant has improperly abandoned the rental unit, the landlord might charge the tenant extra penalties.

What if the landlord does not accept a tenant’s documentation, or refuses to allow a tenant to break the lease?

Texas Property Code § 92.0161(f) provides a clear and specific penalty for landlords who do not obey the law. Landlords who violate the law are liable for actual damages, a civil penalty in the amount of one month’s rent plus $500, and the tenant’s attorney’s fees.

What if the landlord continues to charge rent because they say the tenant never actually moved out?

In order to officially complete the lease termination, a tenant must vacate the rental unit within 30 days of giving the landlord notice. Otherwise, the tenant will continue to owe rent. It’s important to remove all property from the rental unit, because the landlord might interpret abandoned property as a sign the tenant is still living there. If a tenant cannot remove all property, they should make sure the landlord knows the tenant has vacated the unit. However, tenants should also be aware that landlords can charge tenants a reasonable fee for removing abandoned property.