Monday, July 21, 2008

Landlord-Tenant: Abandoned Property

How long must a landlord hold onto a tenant's property? Indiana has a statute on this:

IC 32-31-4-2 Liability; abandoned property; court order allowing removal by landlord
a) A landlord has no liability for loss or damage to a tenant's personal property if the tenant's personal property has been abandoned by the tenant.
(b) For purposes of this section, a tenant's personal property is considered abandoned if a reasonable person would conclude that the tenant has vacated the premises and has surrendered possession of the personal property.
(c) An oral or a written rental agreement may not define abandonment differently than is provided in subsection (b).
(d) If a landlord is awarded possession of a dwelling unit by a court under IC 32-30-2, the landlord may seek an order from the court allowing removal of a tenant's personal property.
(e) If the tenant fails to remove the tenant's personal property before the date specified in the court's order issued under subsection (d), the landlord may remove the tenant's personal property in accordance with the order and deliver the personal property to a warehouseman under section 3 of this chapter or to a storage facility approved by the court.
Notice the statute uses the phrase "reasonable person" without defining that phrase. The statute leaves the phrase undefined because there can be no abstract definition of reasonableness. What is reasonable depends on the situation.

The best practice is to do nothing without a court order.

Can the landlord dispose of the items as the landlord sees fit? I would like to read Paragraph (e) as saying no but I cannot. The General Assembly made the procedure of (e) permissive rather than mandatory: "the landlord may remove...." The General Assembly left an open question about a landlord's ability and liability for disposing of the tenant's property in the following circumstances:
  1. When the landlord has an order finding the property abandoned but does not send the property to a storage facility.
  2. When the landlord does not seek to get an order finding the property abandoned.
I foresee more problems for a tenant successfully suing a landlord under #1 than #2 but it is still annoying that the General Assembly could not have made this simple statute a bit more certain.

I see landlords having liability in the following:
  1. The property has sufficient value to justify a lawsuit;
  2. The landlord does not seek a court order finding the property abandoned; and
  3. The landlord acts unreasonably in declaring the property abandoned and then disposes of the property.
What is the bottom line? If you are a landlord, get a lawyer before disposing of a tenant's property.