Landlords Agree to Settle Claim that They Violated Two Servicemembers’ Federal Right to Break Their Lease when Transferring from JBLM
Servicemembers have unique housing rights, which the DOJ will vigorously enforce
The U.S. Department of Justice and Loren and Holland Cohen have entered into a settlement agreement to remedy alleged violations of the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), announced Acting U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington began its investigation after receiving a complaint from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s (JBLM) Main Legal Assistance Office, alleging that the Cohens violated the SCRA when (1) they refused to return a ($2,150.00) security deposit to their tenants, S.Sgt. Marquis Bines, United States Army, and T.Sgt. Meoisha Bines, United States Air Force, and (2) they demanded all remaining rental payments due under the lease in the amount of $10,750.00, rather than permitting the Bines to terminate their lease several months early and receive their full deposit, as was their right under the SCRA, when they unexpectedly were transferred from JBLM to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina.
“The law provides that landlords have a legal obligation to ensure servicemembers can move freely when military duty demands it,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes. “Just as our dedicated men and women of the military protect our freedoms overseas, we must protect their interests here at home. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to protecting the housing rights of those who secure the rights of all Americans.”
Under the settlement reached Monday, the Cohens admitted no violation of the law, but agreed to: (1) abide by policies and procedures that ensure that servicemembers who rent the Cohen’s property will be aware, and ensured of their rights under the SCRA; (2) promptly report any servicemember complaints to the United States Attorney’s Office; (3) dismiss their claim for over $10,000.00, brought in Pierce County District Court against the Bines; and (4) pay the Bines $4,000 for their deposit and other financial hardship the Bines suffered.
The Bines entered into a one-year lease to rent the Cohens’ condominium, located in Tacoma, Washington, while they served their country at JBLM. Approximately six months into the lease, the Bines received permanent change of station (PCS) orders from their respective branches and sought, as was their right under the SCRA, to terminate the lease and receive their security deposit. The Cohens claimed that the Bines had not complied with the SCRA’s technical notice of termination provisions and also withheld the security deposit, claiming that the “damage” to the property was ten (10) times the original estimate made during the Bines’ walkthrough. JBLM attorneys advised the Cohens that their interpretation of the SCRA was incorrect and that the calculation of the charges against the deposit was excessive. Ignoring this, the Cohens then claimed that the Bines were in breach of the lease and that the entire remaining balance due under the lease was thereby “accelerated,” in an amount over $10,000. Following a thorough investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office concluded that the Cohens unreasonably refused to return the security deposit and that the Cohens illegally demanded further rental payments from the Bines. The Cohens fully cooperated with the United States Attorney’s Office’s investigation and settlement of this matter.
The SCRA provides certain protections to active duty servicemembers who must terminate residential leases to comply with military orders for a permanent change of station or for deployment. Servicemembers who believe that their SCRA rights have been violated should contact the nearest Armed Forces Legal Assistance Program office. Office locations may be found at http://legalassistance.law.af.mil/content/locator.php. Interested persons, including landlords, may find additional information about the SCRA and the Justice Department’s enforcement of that law, and other laws protecting servicemembers, at www.servicemembers.gov.
This matter was handled by Assistant United States Attorney and Civil Rights Program Coordinator J. Michael Diaz in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington, in collaboration with Housing and Civil Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.