Early Lease Terminations And COVID-19: Here Are Some Guidelines

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As written here (and elsewhere), the COVID era has raised housing law issues nobody had thought of until March 2020. While there are recently approved vaccines, until those vaccines are widely distributed to the American public (and I fully support health care professionals, first responders, frontline workers, as well as nursing home residents and other vulnerable seniors going to the front of the line), it appears the pandemic will be with us all for a number of more months. A common fact pattern I see now is a request from a resident for early termination of his/her lease (without the payment of any penalties or fees) because the resident is fearful he or she may get infected by the virus.

There are a couple of legal issues with that request. First, early termination of a lease can be an appropriate remedy as a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) because of a legitimate disability. For example, if a resident contracts COVID and is admitted into the hospital for an extended period of time, it is certainly possible that the resident would be considered disabled and seek early termination (without paying any fees or penalties) on that basis. Lately, however, I have received requests seeking early termination not because a resident contracted the virus and is disabled, but because he or she is anxious of an infection to go along with a fear that the resulting illness will be serious. And on that basis, the resident requests to be let out of the lease.

As a strictly legal matter, such a request does not fit under the FHA’s reasonable accommodation requirement as the resident is not disabled. To be sure, management can grant the request as a courtesy, but my understanding is that the current state of the law does not require it. Now, I had one resident suggest my clients “get out in front of the law” on this issue – an interesting point, but not one my side was willing to do. We did, however, engage in the interactive process with the resident and found an acceptable solution to all.

Just A Thought.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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