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Court Rules in Favor of Out-of-State Landlord in Recent Rhode Island Landlord-Tenant Dispute

In June, the state’s high court issued a written opinion in a Rhode Island landlord-tenant case discussing whether an out-of-state landlord’s failure to comply with a statutory requirement that she maintain an in-state agent entitled the tenant to all rents paid during periods of non-compliance. Ultimately, the court concluded that the statutory text and the legislative intent in passing the statute did not support the plaintiff’s claim, and entered judgment in favor of the defendant landlord.

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff rented a waterfront condo from the defendant landlord for a period of about ten years. The tenancy was without incident until the tenant moved out, at which point there was a dispute over the return of the security deposit.

About two years after the tenant moved out, he filed a claim against the landlord, seeking the entire amount of rent that he paid throughout the tenancy. The tenant claimed that the landlord failed to comply with Rhode Island General Law § 34-18-22.3, which requires a “nonresident landlord” to “designate and continuously maintain an agent upon whom service may be made.” The tenant’s position was that because the landlord never designated an agent, he was not required to pay rent, but because the rent was paid during this time, he was entitled to have that money returned to him.

The landlord did not dispute the underlying claim that she failed to designate and maintain an in-state agent. Instead, the landlord argued that § 34-18-22.3 was not retroactive and could not be used to collect rent money that was already paid.

The court found in favor of the landlord. First, the court cited the relevant text of § 34-18-22.3, which states “If a landlord fails to comply with the requirements of this section, rent for the dwelling unit abates until designation of an agent is made.” The court acknowledged that one definition of “abate” is to nullify or eliminate, which would support the tenant’s claim. However, the court also noted that abate can mean to lessen or moderate.

The court then considered the legislative intent behind the larger statutory scheme of the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, the stated goals of which were to:

  1. ”Simplify, clarify, modernize and revise the law … and the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants”;
  2. Encourage landlords and tenants to maintain and improve the quality and availability of housing;” and
  3. Make the laws more uniform.

After taking these goals into account, the court concluded that the legislature did not intend such a “draconian” result as the one the tenant was advocating. Thus, the court determined that § 34-18-22.3 only applies prospectively, and that the tenant was not entitled to the rent he paid to the landlord during his tenancy.

Are You Involved in a Rhode Island Real Estate Dispute?

If you are currently involved in Rhode Island landlord-tenant dispute, or any other disagreement involving real estate, contact the Rhode Island real estate attorneys at Bilodeau Capalbo. At Bilodeau Capalbo, we represent clients in all types of real estate issues, including landlord-tenant issues, adverse possession claims, and boundary disputes. To learn more about how we can help you with your situation, call 401-300-4055 to schedule a free consultation today.

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