In some cases, landlords can’t represent themselves when conducting an eviction or other legal matters.
A. Right to Proceed Pro Se
In Ohio, a person can always represent himself in court. This is called appearing “pro se” and is a common (though unwise) practice where very little is at stake, such as in small claims courts around the state. Why is it unwise? The two main reasons are that attorneys who regularly perform evictions will be a great deal more familiar with the ins and outs of the law than the lay person. Secondly, an attorney will see the case objectively, and a dispassionate eye is a more effective observer of events than the landlord who may see things subjectively, having his vision clouded by emotions.
B. Representing Other Persons or Entities
But to represent another person or another entity (such as a company, a trust, or an LLC), you must be certified by the Ohio Supreme Court to practice law or you are engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. This rule affects landlords whose property is owned by a corporation or managed by a rental company. Owning a property in a corporate form has become very popular lately as a way of limiting the landlord’s personal liability. This way, if the landlord is sued because of an injury at the property, the most he can lose is the value of the property (assuming his insurance isn’t enough to cover it). His personal assets cannot be touched.
In the past, some landlords tried to file evictions via their employees, or tried to file the actions themselves on behalf of the corporation owning the property. They reasoned that since they were the 100 percent owners of all the shares of the corporation, they should be able to represent it in court. The problem was that these employees and corporate shareholders were not attorneys.
1. Ruling from the Ohio Supreme Court
In the case of Cleveland Bar Association v. Picklo, (2002), 96 Ohio St.3d 195, Lynn Picklo had been filing complaints in the Cleveland Municipal Court, Housing Division, for forcible entry and detainer [evictions], as well as for the recovery of past due rents. Picklo was not licensed to practice law in the state of Ohio, but she nevertheless filed these claims and appeared in court on behalf of the property owner since she was the rental manager.
Ms. Picklo argued that R.C. 1923.01(C)(2), which defines “landlord” for the purpose of invoking a county, municipal, or common pleas court’s jurisdiction in most forcible entry and detainer actions as “the owner, lessor, or sublessor of the premises [or] the agent or person the landlord authorized to manage premises or to receive rent from a tenant under a rental agreement.”
She also cited R.C. 5321.01(B), which, with respect to landlord-tenant remedies in general, similarly defines “landlord” as “the owner, lessor, or sublessor of residential premises, the agent of the owner, lessor, or sublessor, or any person authorized by the owner, lessor, or sublessor to manage the premises or to receive rent from a tenant under a rental agreement.” She argued that since she was the rental manager, she was the “landlord” and thus was entitled to bring the lawsuit on behalf of the owner of the property.
It was a clever argument, but in the end, it would not wash with the Ohio Supreme Court. Under the Constitutional doctrine of Separation of Powers, the Ohio Supreme Court has the inherent power to determine who can practice law before the courts of Ohio. While it was true that the Ohio Legislature passed laws in conflict with the Ohio Constitution, the Ohio Constitution wins out in the case of such conflicts. The reason for this is because the Ohio Constitution is the document that set up the Ohio Legislature in the first place. The Ohio Legislature draws its ability to pass laws from the Ohio Constitution, and thus it cannot make laws contrary to the Ohio Constitution.
So Ms. Picklo was found to be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, and since that time, all evictions filed by persons not the owners of the property require the services of an attorney licensed to practice in the state of Ohio.
II. Eviction Complexities
There are other good reasons to hire an attorney to do evictions, even if the property is owned in the landlord’s name (thus permitting pro se representation).
A. Three Day Notice Requirement and Issues of Timing
One is the three day notice requirement. Most landlords in Ohio realize that they must post a properly worded three day notice to vacate upon the rented property before they can file an eviction. But few landlords have a good grasp of the timing issues as they apply to the calculations of the three days.
Firstly, the three days do not start to run on the day that the three day notice is posted. Secondly, any day in which the court is not open does not count as a day. Let’s look at an example of how this works.
1. Example of Three Day Notice Timing
Larry Landlord has a tenant who has not paid his rent. On January 12, 2006, he posts a properly worded three day notice to vacate upon the door. The day of the posting does not count towards the three days. Friday, January 13, 2006 will be the first day of the three day period which counts. Saturday and Sunday will not count. Monday, January 16, 2006 will not count either because it is Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday upon which the court is closed. So Tuesday, January 17, 2006 will be the second day, and Wednesday, January 18, 2006 will be the third day.
If Larry Landlord has an attorney, that attorney will know that the eviction cannot be filed until the next Thursday, January 19, 2006, seven days later. But if Larry does the eviction alone, he might think that filing it on Tuesday, January 17, 2006 would be fine since more than three days will have passed.
If, at the hearing, the error is pointed out by the tenant, the tenant’s attorney, or noted by the court, the eviction action will have to be dismissed. All of the filing fees spent on the eviction will be lost, the eviction will have to be filed again, and the tenant will walk away from the first eviction hearing with a new found confidence that he can beat any eviction that the landlord throws at him. Better then to use an attorney and only have to handle the matter once.
B. Thirty Day’s Notice Sometimes Required.
Another timing issue arises in relation to the type of breach that the landlord is alleging. If the landlord is alleging a breach of the rental contract, then all that is necessary to start the eviction process is the posting of a properly worded three day notice to vacate. But if the landlord is alleging that the tenant breached the tenant’s duties under Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.05, then the landlord must first notify the tenant in writing of the problem and give the tenant 30 days to fix it. Only then can the three day notice be posted on the door to start the eviction process.
Some landlords have tried to be too clever by half. They have inserted the text of Ohio Revised Code 5321.05’s duties of the tenant into the lease agreement word for word, which enables the argument that any breach of R.C. 5321.05 would also be a breach of the lease agreement. But Ohio courts have seen through this and ruled that if the violation is a breach of both the law and the lease, the landlord must still give the 30 day notice.
Let’s look at two examples.
1. Unauthorized Dog
Larry Landlord has a lease which prohibits the tenant from having a dog. Larry finds out that the tenant is violating this portion of the lease agreement. This is not a violation of Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.05 which says nothing about dogs. Thus, Larry Landlord does not need to give 30 day’s notice before posting the three day notice to vacate.
2. Unsanitary Conditions
Larry Landlord has a lease agreement which says that the tenant shall keep all plumbing fixtures (sinks, toilets, tubs, etc.) in a clean and sanitary condition. During an inspection of the rented premises, Larry notices that the tenant is living like a complete pig, and that the plumbing fixtures are in an appallingly unsanitary condition. Larry would love to post the three day notice and get the eviction process going right away. But Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.05(A)(3) imposes a duty upon the tenant to “Keep all plumbing fixtures in the dwelling unit or used by him as clean as their condition permits . . .”.
Thus the tenant is violating both the lease and R.C. 5321.05(A)(3). Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.11(A) requires 30 days written notice from the landlord to the tenant to remedy any breach of the tenant’s duties under Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.05. So Larry Landlord is going to have to give 30 days written notice to the tenant before he can post the three day notice to vacate. If the tenant remedies the problem within those thirty days, then the tenant will have a defense to the eviction.
C. Tips for the Wise Landlord
So the wise landlord hires an attorney to perform all of his or her evictions. In this way you can be more certain that the eviction will be done right and that possession will be returned to you as soon as possible.
Where can you find such an attorney? There are several places. You can contact your local bar association and ask to be referred to an attorney who regularly performs evictions. If you call any large apartment complex, the rental managers there will more than likely refer you to the attorney they use. If you know an attorney personally, even if he or she does not conduct evictions, he or she will very likely know someone who does.