When a tenant fails to pay rent or otherwise violates their lease agreement, Virginia law gives landlords a way to recover damages and, if necessary, evict the tenant. It is called an unlawful detainer, and it is filed in the general district court of the county where the property in question is located. But filing the document itself is just one step in the process. Landlords must fulfil certain obligations both before and after filing to obtain the relief they seek.
The first step is actually something landlords must not do: take matters into their own hands. The Virginia Residential Landlord Tenant Act (VRLTA) prohibits landlords from using “self-help” measures to evict tenants, such as turning off utilities, moving the tenant’s belongings out of the dwelling, or changing the locks on the doors. In fact, landlords can be held personally liable for damages and other costs for using “self-help.”
Instead, if a tenant is not paying rent or has violated the terms of the lease, specific notices are required by law that must be sent to the tenant before proceeding with legal action. Although the VRLTA only requires 5 days-notice for non-payment of rent—which was extended to 14 days in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—it requires longer periods of notice for other violations of the lease (with a few exceptions for criminal activity). Keep in mind that there are specific legal requirements within these notices, so it is critical to retain an attorney to help draft the notices; otherwise, a judge may dismiss your case on a technicality. Furthermore, as a result of the pandemic, procedures within the Virginia court system have been amended to ensure tenants are provided maximum due process opportunities, compared to years past, before being evicted.
If the tenant is still not compliant at the end of the notice period, an unlawful detainer action will be filed in court. The Court will then set a “return date” when the tenant can admit or deny the allegations in the unlawful detainer. If the tenant does not attend the return date, a default judgment is typically entered in the landlord’s favor. If the tenant attends and denies the allegations, the case will go to trial (before a judge, not a jury). Once possession is granted to the landlord, there is an additional step of processing the eviction through the sheriff’s office that occurs after a statutory appeal period as well as subsequent processing time in the court system and sheriff’s office.
There are two forms of relief for landlords in unlawful detainer cases. One is possession of the property, obtained by a court-ordered eviction. The other includes any damages and legal fees resulting from the tenant’s violation. This second form of relief makes it important for landlords to keep good evidence of any damage to their property and to assess it accurately. Once the landlord obtains possession, he or she can inspect the property and make a final tally of the damages, including any outstanding rent owed.
The professionals at Kondori & Moorad, LLP are well acquainted with these landlord-tenant procedures and are ready to help you protect your residential and commercial property.