My Landlord Will Not Return My Security Deposit — May I Recover My Attorneys’ Fees if I Hire a Lawyer to File a Lawsuit Against My Landlord?

By Stephanie Minkoff

The short answer is, yes, thanks to recent changes by the Virginia legislature to the common law security deposit statute § 55-225.19.

There are two sets of laws that govern residential leases: common law (for private landlords unless they have multiple properties) or the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (mainly for institutional landlords, buildings, or private landlords with several properties). The Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (“VRLTA”) always had a provision for attorneys’ fees (see § 55-248.15:1), but tenants renting from private landlords who were exempt from the VRLTA could not get their attorneys’ fees recovered in a lawsuit to related to the return of a security deposit.

For reference, the VRLTA protects tenant’s apartments, rental homes, and federally subsidized housing in many different ways by imposing requirements on institutional and large residential landlords (defined as three or more properties subject to a residential lease). For more information on the rights of tenants in Virginia, please see our recent blog post on the subject.

Let’s say you have just moved out of your rental apartment and you now want to collect the security deposit you paid at the start of your lease. In Virginia, your landlord is obligated to return your security deposit with or without any deductions, which should be itemized with written notice, provided by the landlord, within 45 days after the termination of the lease (for both common law and VRTLA leases).

There are several reasons that your landlord may decide to withhold payment, including outstanding rent payments (including late fees as specified in the rental agreement), money to cover unpaid utilities, excessive wear and tear on the unit, etc., The landlord must provide written notice of such payment obligations. Tenants should make sure landlords have updated address information where security deposits can be mailed and returned. In situations where there is more than one tenant subject to the rental agreement, the security deposit will be returned, less any deductions, with one check made payable to all tenants to a forwarding address provided (unless otherwise previously agreed to in writing).

According to § 55-225.19, obligations in regards to security deposits by the landlord include:

  • Itemized record of all deductions made by reason of the tenants noncompliance with § 55-225.4 during the preceding two years; and 
  • Permit a tenant or his authorized agent or attorney to inspect such tenant’s records of deductions at any time during normal business hours.
  • Upon request by the landlord to a tenant to vacate, or within five days after receipt of notice by the landlord of the tenant’s intent to vacate, the landlord shall provide written notice to the tenant of the tenant’s right to be present at the landlord’s inspection of the dwelling unit for the purpose of determining the amount of security deposit to be returned. If the tenant desires to be present when the landlord makes the inspection, he shall so advise the landlord in writing who, in turn, shall notify the tenant of the time and date of the inspection.
  • Following the move-out inspection, the landlord shall provide the tenant with a written security deposit disposition statement including an itemized list of damages. If additional damages are discovered by the landlord after the security deposit disposition has been made, nothing herein shall be construed to preclude the landlord from recovery of such damages against the tenant, provided, however, that the tenant may present into evidence a copy of the move-out report to support the tenant’s position that such additional damages did not exist at the time of the move-out inspection.
  • If the tenant has any assignee or sublessee, the landlord shall be entitled to hold a security deposit from only one party in compliance with the provisions of this section.

If you feel that your landlord has not complied with his/her obligations and has not returned your deposit appropriately, and you are unable to resolve the dispute informally, you may decide to take legal action against your landlord. While you may consider handling the dispute yourself, inside or outside of court, hiring a professional with expertise related to the specific landlord and tenant laws in Virginia, doesn’t have to be a huge expense. Professional legal assistance can make the difference in obtaining a favorable outcome and with the recent legislative changes you are also able to request your attorneys’ fees associated with the litigation to recover your security deposit.

Feel free to contact Steven Krieger Law if we may be helpful in your security deposit dispute.

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About the Author

Steven Krieger and guests (lawyers and non-lawyers) will periodically post about topics relevant to his firm and practice areas. Your comments and feedback are always welcome. 

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