Landlord who ‘harassed’ tenants verbally and via text must pay $800 in damages
The tenants were awarded damages after a court found their landlord’s actions constituted harassment. Photo / 123RF
A landlord who harassed her tenants must pay them $800 in damages, because of the text messages she sent them and the content of a conversation recorded by one of the tenants.
The amount is part of a total of $2,350 that property owner Briar Laurie was ordered by the Rent Tribunal to pay tenants.
The court has now issued its ruling after a hearing last week reported by Open Justice.
Laurie became the couple’s landlord after her father died, although she lived in separate accommodation from the property for periods before they moved in in 2019.
The tenants, who cannot be named, spoke at last week’s hearing about a number of issues they faced before finally filing a complaint with the court.
The tenants sought exemplary damages for harassment, for the landlord terminating without cause, and for events that occurred in March of this year.
Compensation for costs caused by the landlord’s use of electricity from the tenants’ supply was also requested.
Other issues raised by the tenants at the hearing included disruption to their quiet enjoyment due to unnotified tree maintenance in May this year, alleged damage to a pet cat by the landlord’s kitten and a broken cooker.
The landlord did not attend the hearing but was represented by her property manager.
Court arbitrator Michael Brennan said this disappointed the tenants, but because the landlord had been properly served and chose not to attend, there was no reason to adjourn the hearing.
Tenants claimed the landlord harassed them between March 18 and 20 this year, in the form of a series of text messages and a verbal altercation on the premises.
The landlord’s tone, offensive language and incorrect statements about tenant obligations that were heard in a voice recording played during the hearing were of concern, the court heard.
“After reviewing the sequence and content of the messages and voice recording, I have determined that the owner acted in such a way that it should be found that an unlawful act of intentional harassment was committed by the owner. March 18-20, 2022,” the decision said.
Brennan said awarding exemplary damages was not a straightforward decision, given the owner’s apparent emotional state, but he considered a High Court decision and weighed his decision on the need to deter as much as to punish.
“Regardless of the landlord’s background and circumstances at the time, it was unacceptable for the landlord to act towards the tenants as she did.”
He said $800 in damages was at the lower end of possible awards, but as the tenants said, their primary motivation was for the landlord’s behavior to change, rather than a money order.
A claim that the landlord acted illegally by threatening to terminate the lease was dismissed.
As part of the extended message exchange, Laurie had inferred a deadline by which they had to leave and had included listings for other rental properties she considered tenants might consider.
The tenants considered that she was acting to terminate the tenancy without right.
The court said no official 28-day notice letter was served.
“Such a letter from the landlord purporting to terminate the lease as directed would have been contrary to statutory provisions and merited further deliberation pursuant to Section 60AA, but I do not find the threat in the message to be a notice of termination,” said the referee.
It was also uncertain whether the landlord had sufficient knowledge or intention at the time to terminate the tenancy.
A claim of $1,530 in electricity costs was fully granted.
Earlier in the tenancy, an informal process was used to account for electricity used by the landlord or others.
At that time such an approach seemed sufficient but in 2021 Laurie moved permanently into the adjourned premises.
This, and subsequent concerns about unexpectedly higher electricity usage due to Laurie building a small house on the property, led tenants to request the installation of a proper meter.
This was arranged but no accounting process was established, the decision notes.
An informal agreement was reached that the owner would pay $20 per week for electricity costs, but no payment was made.
The Landlord accepted the Tenant’s calculation that $1,530 was owed for electricity usage.
The ‘contentious tree maintenance issues’ appeared resolved after the landlord took care of a number of trees appropriately, with the help of an arborist, although tenants were given no notice .
“There is no absolute requirement for a landlord to give advance notice to attend to outdoor areas, but it goes without saying that it is a minimum of courtesy to provide advance notice for intrusive and potentially dangerous activities. such as pruning trees.
The court acknowledged the tenants’ frustration over this, but said it appeared the property manager was unaware of the planned activity and therefore could not provide better notice.
He was also concerned about efforts to recover excess insurance from tenants after a ceramic cooker exploded in July.
The court was unable to comment further, however, as the tenants said they planned to follow up with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.
The tenants’ allegation that the injuries to their pet cat were caused by the owner’s kitten could not be substantiated and therefore did not fall within the jurisdiction of the court.
Nor did he have the power to order the landlord to formally apologize to the tenants, as requested.