By Charles L. Stern, Jr.
In Louisiana, No Court Order, No Eviction
In many states, a landlord is allowed to use self-help—changing the locks, for example—to evict a tenant that has failed to pay rent in default of its obligations under the lease. Commercial landlords who own property in other states therefore are often surprised to learn that Louisiana law does not allow a landlord to repossess leased premises (absent abandonment by the tenant) without a court order authorizing the tenant’s eviction. Even then, a government official, such as a representative of the local sheriff’s office, must dispossess the tenant—the landlord cannot do it himself. A recent case from Lake Charles highlights the issue.
Platinum City, LLC v. Boudreaux – The Beginning
In Platinum City, LLC v. Boudreaux, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal was presented with a classic self-help case. Platinum City leased property in Lake Charles for a nightclub at a rate of $4,000 per month. A rent check bounced, and with the tenant two months behind on its rent, the landlord sent Platinum City a notice of termination of the lease for nonpayment. The notice, consistent with Louisiana law, demanded that Platinum City, vacate the property within five days. So far, so good.
The Story Unfolds and the Landlord’s Case Unravels
Platinum City ignored the notice and continued to operate its nightclub at the site for another several weeks. Rather than file suit to evict, the landlord simply changed the locks to the building, an understandable act of self-help, but one that he later would come to regret. Platinum City sued the landlord, Boudreaux, for wrongful eviction, claiming that it had lost both equipment and profits by having been deprived improperly of its occupancy of the leased premises. Boudreaux responded with his own claim for unpaid rent and for attorney’s fees. The trial court ruled entirely in favor of Boudreaux, awarding him $5,200 in late rental payments and $12,725 in fees. Platinum City then appealed to the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal.
The Third Circuit had little difficulty in finding that Boudreaux’s self-help—the unilateral changing of the locks—was improper. The court determined that Boudreaux’s first step, the notice of termination, complied with the requirements of Louisiana law, specifically article 4701 of the Code of Civil Procedure. It then held, however, that once the tenant failed to comply with the notice, the landlord, if he wished to regain possession of the property, had only one option—a suit to evict.
At the trial of such a suit, the court, if it were to find the evidence to be in the landlord’s favor, could issue a judgment requiring the tenant to leave within 24 hours. If the tenant were to ignore that judgment, the court can issue a warrant directing the sheriff or constable, as the case may be, to deliver possession to the landlord. Any attempt by the landlord to shortcut that process by self-help, however, will be considered wrongful eviction, a form of trespass that makes the landlord liable to the tenant for any resulting damages.
Asking for Help from the Court to Evict a Non-paying Tenant is Essential
This may seem rather harsh to Boudreaux, who was faced with a non-paying tenant who ignored the notice to vacate without any legal justification, but it is the law in Louisiana and has been the law here for generations. No matter how frustrating it may be for a landlord in Boudreaux’s situation, he must ask for help from the court system to evict a non-paying tenant—there are no exceptions. (It is permissible for a landlord to retake premises that a tenant has abandoned, but that is because the tenant has voluntarily relinquished its possession.) Any landlord who gives in to the temptation to evict the tenant himself is asking for trouble.
A Lesson All Landlords Should Heed
In Boudreaux’s case, he did catch something of a break in the end. The Third Circuit ruled that Platinum City had failed to prove any damages from the wrongful eviction. It did, however, reduce Boudreaux’s fee award from $12,725 to $1,750, reasoning that most of the fees went toward defending an eviction that turned out to have been wrongful. So for giving in to the temptation to take the law into his own hands, Boudreaux ended up paying his lawyer thousands of dollars and tying himself up in court for years. An eviction would have been much simpler, cheaper, and quicker, a lesson that all landlords should heed.