Do I need witnesses in small claims court?
UPDATED: Sep 30, 2022
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Do I need witnesses in small claims court?
my landlord’s maintenance man let himself in my apartment this month to ‘deliver a package’. When we told the property manager that this kind of use of his key was a privacy concern for us and that we would like to move out, she adamantly held that he was simply acting as a ‘good Samaritan’ and was not acting outside of the limits of the lease. The lease aside, isn’t this a definite violation of my tenant rights? We wanted out immediately so we payed the excessive lease break fees, and now we are looking into filing a lawsuit against them in order to get the money back for those fees. Can they really claim this as some kind of a ‘Good Samaritan’ exclusion? Or are they just making excuses for a blatant violation of our privacy? Also, assuming we do sue them for these fees, what kind of proof do we need to bring to court? Do we need to call the maintenance man as a witness to confirm that he actually did enter without permission or cause, and then simply argue that it’s clearly against the lease and our tenant rights? I just don’t want to show up in court and look stupid if their lawyer says ‘heresay’ after I say that he entered our apartment on such and such day without permission or cause.
Asked on September 29, 2016 under Real Estate Law, South Carolina
SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney
Answered 6 years ago | Contributor
If you personally saw him enter, you could of course testify that he entered without permission. But if you did not see him and only know about because he or the landlord told you, then yes--you would need to call him as a witness (presumably, subpoening him to make sure he actually appears) to testify that he entered without permission (and you'll need to hope he tells the truth, since if he doesn't, you may not have any evidence to refute him). In all courts, even small claims, you need the testimony of someone with "personal knowledge" to prove a case
Beyond that though, you will probably lose in that this was almost certainly not grounds to break your lease legally. Yes, it was improper: but terminating a lease may only be done for a significant or material violation, and if he entered when no one was home, did no damage, took nothing, and had innocent, even if wrongheaded, explanation for what he did, a judge will likely find this was not material enough to justify terminating the lease. Furthermore, when a landlord or his employees/agents violate your right to quiet enjoyment, you generally have to give them notice of the violation and a chance to "cure" it by not doing it again. Here, you didn't give them the chance to not enter wrongfully again, and the lack of an opportunity to cure likely means your breaking the lease was wrongful.
Finally, whether or not you feel the fees were excessive, if they were in the lease you signed, you agreed to them, and may not now legally complain--or sue--about them.
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