Sometimes, tenants can no longer use and enjoy their current rental because of a debilitating medical condition. This can happen following a serious injury such as a car accident, an advancing illness such as Alzheimer’s disease, or the progression of any existing disability. If your medical situation starts to interfere with your apartment living, you might want to relocate somewhere more accessible (or even move in with relatives or a live-in caregiver).
Although your landlord can’t stop you from moving out, they may expect you to continue paying monthly rent for the rest of your lease term, even if you’re no longer there. Your lease isn’t likely to include a clause allowing you to break it for medical reasons. But federal and state fair housing laws may allow you to do just that. Here’s what you need to know if you’re thinking of ending your lease early because your medical situation has changed.
How do fair housing laws apply to lease breaks?
In general, the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects renters with disabilites from discrimination throughout their tenancy. More specifically, the FHA requires landlords across the country to comply with any reasonable requests these tenants might make for changes to normal rules and policies.1 In legal terms, these changes are known as “reasonable accommodations.” Reasonable accommodations can take all shapes and sizes—for instance, making exceptions to a “no-pet” policy or waiving pet fees when tenants need service animals for a disability.
Based on previous court cases, asking your landlord to break your lease without charging early termination fees could qualify as a reasonable accommodation. A Delaware appeals court made this clear when it refused to grant a landlord’s request to dismiss a lawsuit against him for exactly this reason. The landlord refused to allow a tenant to end his one-year lease early because of a “crippling” mental impairment that worsened only three days after he moved in. After a hospitalization and a psychiatrist’s determination that it would be dangerous for the tenant to remain in the apartment, he cleaned the apartment and moved out after only three months.
When the tenant asked the landlord to return his $106 security deposit, the landlord refused and also billed the tenant for more than $4,000, which included the remaining rent due under the lease plus cleaning fees. The tenant refused to pay and sued the landlord, who asked the judge to dismiss the case. The judge denied the landlord’s request and ruled that the tenant “must have an opportunity” to convince a jury that his landlord failed to reasonably accommodate his disability.2
How do I know if I have a qualifying disability?
The first step in determining whether you can break your lease for medical reasons is figuring out if your condition fits the FHA’s definition of disability.3 To qualify for protection, you must have a “physical or mental impairment” that significantly limits one or more major life activities. The law considers a “major life activity” to include things like seeing, hearing, walking, performing manual tasks, caring for yourself, learning, and speaking.
But having a qualifying disability does not, by itself, allow you to legally break your lease. You must also be able to show that your disability is what’s preventing you from using and enjoying your apartment. For instance, if you were in a serious car accident and now get around using a wheelchair—and your apartment is on the second floor of a building with no elevators—your disability makes it difficult for you to even access your apartment, let alone enjoy it.
If you have a disability that isn’t obvious, you are not required to demonstrate or explain it to your landlord.4 However, your landlord may ask you for verification from a third party (such as your cardiologist) that you have a disability under the law and that you need to break your lease as an accommodation.
What if my disability makes it hard (or impossible) for me to pay rent?
Keep in mind that a landlord’s duty to consider tenants’ requests for accommodations applies only to disabilities. Landlords are not required to accommodate tenants’ sudden inability to pay the rent in full and on time. This is true even if part or all of your recent economic hardship stems from a disability.
How do I know if my request is reasonable?
Assuming your disability qualifies under the FHA—and it’s also significantly interfering with your ability to use and enjoy your apartment—the final requirement for an accommodations request is that it be “reasonable.” What’s considered reasonable depends largely on the facts of your specific situation, but an unreasonable request would mean one that would place an “undue financial and administrative burden” on the landlord or “fundamentally alters the nature of their operation.” For example, it is more reasonable to expect a landlord with a large operation and high rental demand to grant a request for early lease termination than a landlord with only a few apartments in a tough economy.
It’s possible your landlord may suggest an alternative arrangement for the remainder of your lease term. For example, your landlord may suggest transferring to an apartment on the ground-floor of a walkup to accommodate a new mobility impairment. If a reasonable alternative exists for your situation and you reject it, your case for breaking your lease will grow weak.
How do I submit a request to break my lease for medical reasons?
If you decide you need to vacate your apartment early for medical reasons, you must communicate your intent clearly to your landlord. Although some landlords have created forms for tenants to request accommodations, no special form is required. To protect yourself, submit your request in writing and indicate that you must break your lease because a disability has made your apartment no longer livable. Keep records of letters and emails, and create a log of phone and in-person communications with your landlord in case you’re forced to file a fair housing complaint.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.