RECEIVING A LETTER FROM AN ATTORNEY
It is a Monday morning, and you receive a certified letter from a law firm. You toss the junk mail to the side, and with trembling hands you tear open the letter. To your amazement, a resident is accusing you of wrongdoing, and the attorney is demanding that you immediately refund a security deposit or pay a certain sum within 10 days to avoid suit. The letter is full of misrepresentations, and you are furious. The “facts” as the attorney present them seem to have absolutely nothing to do with what actually occurred, and you are ready to get on the computer and fire back a letter or maybe even call the attorney and give him a piece of your mind. Is this the right approach? Absolutely not!
Why Do We Receive Letters From Attorneys?
The most common letters a property manager receive from attorneys concern a dispute over the claim you have made on the security deposit, a request for a rent reduction or a request to break the lease agreement. These letters usually come regular mail, sometimes certified mail and often have some sort of deadline for response. This often panics the property manager, leading the property manager to believe that failure to respond within the time period specified by the attorney will result in some major lawsuit being filed against the property manager or the management.
Why Would an Attorney Represent a Resident in a Landlord/tenant Dispute?
Most attorneys do not concentrate on representing residents and really do not even want to get involved with writing a letter to you. The resident may be a friend of the attorney, client in another matter or is just writing a $50.00 letter for the resident, hoping to never see the resident again. Let’s face it; all of us attorneys have done this at one time or another. On the other hand, the attorney may think that you have done something which is actionable and really does wish to pursue a lawsuit against you. You just never know. I have found that the longer the letter from the attorney, the less likely anything will come of the situation. Attorneys are trained to write good, scary demand letters, as this often is successful in achieving the desired results.
Contents of the Letter
The letter you receive from an attorney contains a demand or threat based upon the information as the resident has presented it to that attorney. We must remember that many attorneys will take the information they get from their client, believe it wholeheartedly and act accordingly. This is the job of an attorney. People lie, distort the truth and leave out a lot of information when hiring an attorney, so this is why the content of the letter may have wild, unsubstantiated allegations against you. Often there is a 10 day deadline given to you to refund some money, with the threat that a lawsuit will ensue if you do not act pursuant to the demand. The attorney may accuse you of fraud, theft or incompetence, and this gets you angry, as you know you did the right thing, and the letter is just a pack of lies. Now, take a deep breath, and do not do anything yet.
Should You Respond to the Attorney?
Attorneys do not like to be ignored. For one, it is an ego thing, and at the same time the attorney’s client is calling every day to see if you have responded. We recommend that you never ignore an attorney. Now, how should you respond? Many property managers run to the computer and write a detailed, angry letter back to the attorney, responding to each and every allegation of the attorney, often giving the attorney copies of what is demanded plus other items that the property manager is using to convince the attorney that his client is wrong or a liar. This is exactly what the attorney wants, and you are falling right into the trap. By responding, you are showing the attorney the strengths AND weaknesses of your case. The attorney now has you just where he or she wants you and will eat you alive. It is rare that an individual is a match for a resident who has an attorney. By responding, you are giving the attorney evidence which can and will be used against you later in a court of law. What you think you did right can be twisted around by the attorney. What you did wrong or did not do at all will be exploited. The attorney will know your weaknesses and capitalize upon them. If there are enough weaknesses in your case, this may cause the attorney to decide to file a lawsuit, knowing that if the suit is successful, there might be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow called an “attorney’s fee award” waiting for that attorney. You NEVER have to provide an attorney with copies of documents, unless it is a demand made pursuant to active litigation, and even then, there are exceptions and protections afforded to you. Now how do we handle this? I have told you not to ignore the attorney, but also have shown the extreme dangers in responding.
Here is the Easy Solution.
1. Write a letter to the attorney immediately stating the following and nothing more. “We are in receipt of your letter concerning your client John Smith, and my attorney Bob Jones at 555-1212 will be contacting you shortly. Please deal directly with my attorney.”
This accomplishes two things. First it lets the attorney know that you have an attorney handling all your matters, and second it now prevents this attorney from calling you up on the phone. The Florida Bar rules prohibit an attorney from contacting another person who he or she knows is represented by counsel. If this attorney then calls you up on the phone, a violation of the Bar rules will have occurred. Many young, inexperienced attorneys will ignore or not be aware of the importance of this Bar rule.
2. Send the information to your attorney immediately, giving your attorney your side of the story, and have your attorney simply write a response letter. The more information you give your attorney, including all the documents relating to the dispute, a truthful synopsis of what occurred, your settlement offer or authority for settlement, the easier it will be for your attorney to write a quick letter to the resident’s attorney or assist you in settling the matter, so it does not grow into a litigation situation.
What if You Completely Ignore the Resident’s Attorney?
Completely ignoring a demand letter from an attorney makes the attorney think that you are incompetent and that you will possibly ignore a lawsuit as well, if it is filed against you. It doesn’t make you look tough or strong. Refusing certified mail from an attorney is not good either, and no judge appreciates it when a party refuses mail. Completely ignoring a resident’s attorney greatly increases the risk that the next communication you get from the attorney will be a lawsuit.
The Attorney Letter Trick Exposed
Sometimes an attorney will make a statement or imply an agreement and then go on to say, “We will assume that you have agreed to this unless we hear otherwise from you within 5 days in writing.” This is a little trick to get you to “agree” to an offer or an action by the resident by you NOT responding. Did the fact that you failed to respond mean that you agreed? Not necessarily, but your failure to respond will be used by the attorney to convince a judge that you in fact “agreed”.
So Your Attorney Has Responded, Now What?
The majority of the time, if your attorney responds in a timely matter to the resident’s attorney, the case simply dies a natural death, and you never hear another thing about the matter again. The resident’s attorney wrote the letter for the client, received your attorney’s letter and then dropped the bomb on the resident that if the matter goes any further, the attorney will want a retainer, or possibly your attorney’s response letter convinced the resident’s attorney that the resident has a weak case. In the vast majority of other cases, the two attorneys go back and forth and the matter gets settled, usually to the satisfaction of all parties involved. Most landlord/tenant disputes are not about large sums of money but hurt feelings, a few hundred dollars or just a couple angry people. Many cases that end up in court could have been settled prior. A large percentage of cases are settled “on the courthouse steps”, so why make money for your attorneys? A smart property manger knows that going to court is always the least desirable option, understands the attorney’s fee risk and helps their attorney settle the matter. An experienced property manager will also try to convince a reluctant property owner who is often out of state that settlement is the best way to go.
- The Curable Noncompliance Examined PART 1
- THE CURABLE NONCOMPLIANCE EXAMINED PART 2
- THE WRIT OF POSSESSION – WHAT IT IS
- THE WRIT OF POSSESSION AND THE FULL UNIT
- WORK ORDER COMPANY POLICY AND THE LAW