Dear Consumer Ed:

What can an apartment complex do if I do not pay the fine for breaking my lease?  My apartment was broken into.  I decided not to continue to stay at the apartments.  I submitted the required 60-day notice.  I feel I should not have to pay the fee or all of the fee to leave the apartment early.

Consumer Ed says: 

We don’t recommend that you ignore the fee.  If you don’t pay the amount owed, the landlord can sue you.  If the landlord wins, the judgment against you could include not only the early-release fee you mentioned, but court costs and accrued interest until the judgment is paid.  If you continue to withhold payment, the landlord can turn the judgment over to a collection agency, which will actively pursue collection.  This will have a negative impact on your credit.

That being said, you should get some legal advice tailored to your individual situation and lease contract.  If you cannot afford your own lawyer, get in touch with your local legal aid office or contact tenants’ rights organizations.  If you do get legal representation, you should have your attorney review your lease to see if it allows your landlord to impose these fees and whether the fee amount is reasonable.

Another possible avenue, known as “constructive eviction”, may be available to you.  While not grounds for termination of the lease, constructive eviction is a defense you can use to avoid further rent and possibly an early-release fee.  A constructive eviction defense will not work against the actions of a third-party, such as a burglar; it must be the actions of the landlord that are making the premises unfit to live in.  This means you would need to show that your apartment was broken into due to your landlord’s continued neglect, or his or her failure to exercise reasonable measures to keep your premises and the apartment complex safe (e.g., the landlord fails to fix broken locks or replace a broken door, making it probable that someone will break into your apartment, or fails to repair gates or fences on the property).

Again, you should never make a decision not to pay on any grounds without first talking to a lawyer.

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