When Your Property Is Under Siege, Where’s the Legal Line?
Image courtesy of L.A. Weekly and MSNBC
Landlords should never barge into their tenants' home without notice to enter, of course. But what if a horrific tragedy with international repercussions propels them across that threshold… with a horde of journalists at their heels?
That appears to have happened to California landlords Doyle and Judy Miller when their tenants were named in the December shooting rampage in San Bernardino. What followed – the chaotic scene in the Miller's Redlands rental property as reporters from CNN, MSNBC, CBS and the BBC surged into the apartment – has been dissected and analyzed by scores of pundits and property attorneys, not to mention armchair experts across the country and beyond.
But what are property managers saying? “What if that had been me?” “What would I have done?” “How would I have handled the media stampeding to my rental unit, then invading the premises to prowl through rooms and paw tenants' possessions?”
The Millers may not have taken the time for that theoretical exercise. The couple appeared overwhelmed in news reports. Doyle Miller claimed he didn't give reporters permission to enter the apartment. His wife, Judy, tearfully told reporters that she will always ask herself how she could have approved a lease agreement with people who turned out to be capable of such vile, savage acts.
Doubtless, the Millers never imagined themselves in such a dilemma. Panic must have driven their actions. They may have felt compelled to distance themselves from the shooters who lived in their investment property. Maybe they felt a duty to allow the crush of journalists to record each detail. Did the Millers even have time to think?
What about the media? Reporters today are no different from those of yesteryear who were just as pressured by editors to get the story first. The difference now is the immediacy with which they can present the story to news consumers. Social media has reduced the lag time in news competition to mere seconds; and seconds don't permit a copy desk, publishers and media lawyers to weigh in on whether or when a photo or interview should be published.
Yet, the Millers surely had far less experience in managing crisis than the journalists. Until the San Bernardino shootings, their worst confrontation as landlords may have been trying to collect overdue rent or testifying in court on a tenant breaking a lease agreement.
Did the Millers break the law?
So, were the bewildered Millers just collateral damage in a disaster which also took 14 lives? Or were they scofflaws in all-bets-are-off circumstances? The answer may be that they acted both on emotion and from the standpoint that unprecedented circumstances called for unique action.
Whatever the reason, an argument could be made that their actions, or lack of action to bar the media, violated California landlord/tenant law. When a tenant dies, existing lease agreements become part of his or her estate which must be settled by heirs. An estate must go through the probate process so assets are distributed according to the person's wishes.
Just as each state has its own landlord-tenant law, each can set guidelines for handling repossession of a deceased tenant's unit. Most call for a waiting period before bringing a case for eviction or abandonment, and require landlords to store the late tenant's possessions for a period of time before disposal.
If the heirs in this case pursue legal action, the Millers' lawyer may try to argue that the Millers' right to enter the rental property without advanced, written notice was based on one of the allowable reasons under California landlord-tenant law.
Those reasons include:
- To respond to an emergency
- Tenant has moved out or has abandoned the rental unit.
- Tenant is present and consents to the entry at the time of entry.
- Tenant and landlord have agreed that the landlord will make repairs or supply services, and have agreed orally that the landlord may enter to make the repairs or supply the services.
What about the reporters who came onto the property and handled the tenants' possessions? If it can be successfully argued that reporters trespassed without Millers' permission, could the Millers still be held responsible for not properly securing the apartment to keep out nosy journalists?
The Miller's circumstances are truly unusual and a legal ruling on whether the couple – or the reporters who entered the unit – are culpable, would surely require complex reasoning to arrive at a fair judgment.
Do you have a crisis management plan?
Sure, the Millers had no crystal ball to predict the events of Dec. 2 and the fallout at their Redlands rental. But it appears that they lacked an effective crisis management plan? Who was on their support team to help with that catastrophe? Their alarming experience should be a wake-up call for any property manager without a plan and a list of allies who can step up when disaster hits.
Property Management Insider recommends landlords develop a crisis communications plan. Whether you confront a hurricane, a crime or other emergency, there are steps you can ahead of time that will help you cope and feel a sense of control in chaotic circumstances.
“While it’s impossible to consider every possible crisis situation, considering what could happen is an important exercise. Doing so can help you understand what you’ll need from a communications and business contingency standpoint in the event of a crisis,” the Insider notes.
Create a plan that includes the following measures to be taken in a crisis:
- Establish a chain of command and decide how the members will communicate during crisis.
- List who will need information during crisis and how information will be sent to them.
- Assign yourself or staff to handle specific emergencies. (Some may require training. Decide what and when that will occur.)
Write down the plan you create and keep it handy for instant reference when you need it. Make copies for staff and family members who will be called on to help. Collect contact information business and residential neighbors who live near your rental property. If you manage multi-units, include other tenants on the list of those who will receive information during an emergency.
Many management companies appoint a spokesperson who can field media questions and answer calls from local officials and police. That person may require training so that communication is clear and stems rumors and panic. If your business staff consists simply of you or you and a spouse, be prepared to act as your own spokesperson. Think about how you will respond, both in terms of how much information you should give to a caller and whether the call deserves a response at all. After all, reporters have a job to do but their role in a crisis is secondary to that of emergency, fire and police personnel.
Designing a comprehensive crisis management plan might seem like a big effort for a busy property manager. But you put a lot of effort into screening tenants and crafting solid leases so you could avoid problems like unpaid rent and testifying in court against a lease violator, right? Surely, it's worth your time to minimize repercussions from what could be the worst experience in your landlord career, and to prevent the world's 'experts' from second-guessing your actions in a crisis.