Tenant Deposits Protected from Bogus “Out of My Control” Delays

An appellate decision just came down from Division 3 further protecting tenant security deposits.  In Goodeill v. Madison Real Estate, the court addresses the burden on landlords to prove an exception to the 14-day deposit rule.

Briefly, RCW 59.18.280 requires landlords, within 14 days of termination of the rental agreement and move-out, to return the security deposit, less any deductions described in a “full and specific statement of the basis for retaining any of the deposit.”  The same statute offers landlords an escape: “The landlord is also barred in any action brought by the tenant to recover the deposit from asserting any claim or raising any defense for retaining any of the deposit unless the landlord shows that circumstances beyond the landlord’s control prevented the landlord from providing the statement within the fourteen days.”

In Goodeill, the court elaborated on the burden to prove such circumstances: “We hold that a landlord may not avail itself of RCW 59.18.280′ s exception unless it accounts for any active or passive delays sufficient to show that it made a conscientious attempt to comply with the 14 day statutory notice.”  The facts of the case are too detailed to summarize here, but the story is typical.  The landlord interpreted the statute to mean that only an estimate is due within 14 days, and that because repair work was necessary by two or more service providers, it was categorically not feasible to comply with RCW 59.18.280’s 14-day requirement.  As a result, the plaintiff/tenant did not receive her “full and specific statement” until 43 days after move-out.   At small claims court, the landlord argued that other small claims court judges had generally agreed, but had no appellate law supporting that position.

In reaching its decision, the Goodeill court reasoned that the defendant/landlord failed to act with reasonable diligence in scheduling repairs and obtaining cost invoices well before the 14-day period expired.  The length of the delay seems particularly offensive to the court: “[The landlord’s] evidence falls woefully short of showing that circumstances beyond its control prevented it from timely providing Ms. Goodeill the statutory notice.”  The plaintiff/tenant was entitled to her full deposit back, regardless of whether or not the repairs were justified.

This is a cautionary tale for landlords that just because you need to hire professional cleaners or repair contractors doesn’t mean you can automatically justify significant delays past the 14-day deadline.

Andrew Ackley