Large organizations and institutions generally know the importance of verifying military status before pursuing an action that could potentially violate the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, but many individuals who deal with servicemembers can be exposed to penalties for noncompliance with this law as well. Landlords in particular need to understand their rights and responsibilities under the act, as well as the importance of regularly verifying military status.
To this effect, Law360 cited a case in which Randall McLeod was found guilty of violating the eviction protections of Section 531 of the SCRA. In late 2004, McLeod's tenants, the Flesserts, failed to pay the rent due on their Wilson, Michigan, home. At the time, Flessert was posted on active duty with the U.S. Army and his wife was visiting family in Wisconsin. McLeod took unilateral action – meaning that he did so without a court order – removing the Flesserts' belongings from the property and padlocking the doors.
On May 17, 2007, McLeod pled guilty to the charge of a class A misdemeanor for violating the SCRA, according to the news source. He was sentenced to six months in prison, one year of supervised relief, a fine of $1,000 and a restitution payment of $15,300.28. This penalty may seem stiff, but it is in keeping with the general interpretation of this act. The U.S. Department of Justice has been working to enforce the SCRA with increasing aggressiveness in recent years in response to predatory lending practices targeting servicemembers that have garnered attention in the media. While many SCRA enforcement actions are settled with financial penalties, this case demonstrates that courts and regulators are very willing to apply the criminal aspect of the law in certain cases.
SCRA eviction law
According to the Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute, a landlord or person with paramount title is forbidden to evict a servicemember or his or her dependents from occupied premises without a court order, provided the following are true:
- The premises are serving as the primary residence of the servicemember or dependents.
- The monthly rent is below $2,400, as adjusted for cost of living from 2003. The current amount is $3,217.81.
The landlord is also forbidden to subject these premises to distress during the period of military service.
Should a landlord apply to a court for the right to evict a servicemember who is protected under the SCRA, he or she must start by verifying military service. If the servicemember's ability to pay the agreed rent is materially affected by his or her service, the court will do one of two things:
- Stay the eviction proceedings for a period of 90 days. The court may, however, decide that justice and equity require a longer or shorter stay period.
- Adjust the obligation under the lease to preserve the interests of all parties.
Should the court decide to grant a stay or adjust the obligations under the lease, it is possible that the court will grant the landlord or holder of paramount title relief "as equity may require."
Anyone who knowingly takes part in – or attempts to take part in – an eviction or distress of property rented by a servicemember or dependent protected under the SCRA without first verifying military service and obtaining a court order, that person can be fined or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.
McLeod experienced just how seriously courts take the eviction protections granted to servicemembers under the SCRA. If you are a landlord who deals with servicemembers, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act Centralized Verification Service can help you to stay in compliance with this important law.