Articles Posted in Tenants’ Rights

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As Chicago class action attorneys, our firm has been able to help many Illinois tenants protect their rights under a special state law that not every renter knows about. The Illinois Security Deposit Interest Act requires many Illinois landlords to pay their renters the interest on security deposits. The law applies to landlords of buildings with 25 or more rental units, and to deposits held six months or more. Under those circumstances, the law requires landlords to pay interest on security deposits once a year, after the end of the yearly rental agreement, except when the renter owed unpaid rent. Landlords who willfully fail to do this can be sued for the amount of the withheld interest, as well as attorney fees and court costs.

That was the case in Wang v. Williams and Royal Rentals, 343 Ill.App.3d 495, 797 N.E.2d 179, 277 Ill.Dec. 832 (Sept. 10, 2003). Zhiyuan Wang of Carbondale sued his landlord, Royal Rentals, for failing to return his security deposit, failing to pay interest during the two years he rented from Royal, consumer fraud and breach of contract. The trial court dismissed his interest claim and his breach of contract claim, both of which were based on the Security Deposit Interest Act, because Wang’s lease included a provision stating “TENANTS agree to waive right to interest on security deposit.” Wang appealed to the Fifth District Court of Appeal.

On appeal, Royal Rentals argued that legal rights, including Wang’s rights under the Security Deposit Interest Act, can be waived when the right in question is conferred only for the benefit of individuals rather than the public. The court found this unconvincing. It pointed out that the Security Deposit Interest Act protects the rights of renters, a class of people. In support, it cited several cases, including Gittleman v. Create, Inc., 189 Ill. App. 3d 199, 545 N.E.2d 237, 240 (1989), a similar case in which tenants sued their landlord for a security deposit refund and interest. That lease had a provision reading “It is understood that the security deposit is net of security deposit interest, if any.” That court found for the tenants, saying the provision was intentionally vague about how interest should be paid and suggesting that the landlord used that vagueness to try to circumvent the Security Deposit Interest Act.

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As Chicago class action attorneys with a focus on consumer rights and consumer protection law, we know that renters in Chicago are fortunate to be protected by a law requiring landlords to pay interest on the renters’ own security deposits once a year, as long as the tenant stays for more than six months. Section 080 of the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (PDF) also specifies that landlords must return security deposits, minus unpaid rent or reasonable costs of repairs, within 45 days of the tenant’s departure. Unlike with the corresponding state law, this is true regardless of the number of units the landlord owns. If a landlord fails to comply, the tenant has the right to sue for twice the amount of the deposit, plus interest and attorneys’ fees.

The ordinance also applies even if the landlord did not willfully (that is, intentionally) withhold the payment. That provision was established by the decision of the First District Court of Appeal in Lawrence v. Regent Realty Group, 307 Ill.App.3d 155, 717 N.E.2d 443, 240 Ill.Dec. 350 (1999). In that case, Aurelia Lawrence sued her landlord for withholding interest on a pet deposit. At trial, the court decided that a pet deposit is a security deposit for the purposes of the law (rather than a fee or charge). But because the landlord didn’t willfully refuse to pay interest on that pet deposit, it declined to impose the penalty of twice the deposit plus interest and attorney fees. Lawrence moved for a new trial, which was denied, and appealed to the First District.

In its analysis, the appeals court noted that it did not need to decide whether the landlord actually did willfully fail to pay; what mattered was whether the ordinance required willfulness in the first place. In order to require willfulness, the court wrote, a law must be penal (intended to punish) rather than remedial (intended to make the victim whole). Both sides agreed that the case turned on the issue of penal versus remedial. The court first decided that its decision should not be controlled by Szpila v. Burke, 279 Ill. App. 3d 964, 665 N.E.2d 357 (1996), in which the appeals court decided that a tenant was entitled to damages once rather than for each separate violation of the ordinance. In that case, the First District said, it found willfulness because to do otherwise would give a result that was out of proportion to the violation and unjust. A similar case, Namur v. Habitat Co., 294 Ill. App. 3d 1007, 691 N.E.2d 782 (1998), was dismissed because it did not address the question at issue here.