Landlord gets 20 years for stealing deposits
Federal judge sentences landlord Robert Miell to 20 years in prison.
The defendant — Robert Miell — owns hundreds of apartments, and, as a landlord, he routinely defrauded tenants by keeping their security deposits without cause.
Miell also pleaded guilty of perjury and mail fraud, but stealing from tenants is what seemed to have most rankled U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett.
In a 105-page sentencing memo, the judge compared Miell to a villainous landlord in Charles Dickens’ “Little Dorrit,” and said he hopes the 20-year sentence ‘sends a seismic shockwave to every unscrupulous landlord who has repeatedly, unfairly, and unlawfully withheld renters’ damage deposits.”
The judge added in the memo, “You know who you are.”
Tenants also can know who they are — provided consumers do a little homework. Even when they can’t detect deposit thieves before it’s too late, tenants may have the law on their side.
It’s not just an Iowa problem. Last year, the Missouri attorney general’s office recorded 109 consumer complaints involving security deposits. That’s more than four times as many as just five years earlier.
Just this week, the St. Louis Better Business Bureau issued a warning about Creve Coeur-based Midland Management Corp., which manages a 202-unit apartment building near St. Louis University.
On Tuesday, several of the building’s former tenants — and their parents — complained that Midland would keep deposits, even when the company agreed that all rent had been paid and there was no damage to the units. Midland wouldn’t pay some tenants until they threatened lawsuits, according to the BBB.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m sympathetic to those tenants. I’ve taken someone to court just once, and I can think of only one other time I’ve threatened to sue. Both cases involved landlords who tried to seize security deposits, and both times I prevailed.
Susan Alverson, who runs the housing unit for the nonprofit Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said she often encourages tenants in deposit disputes to sue landlords in small claims court.
That’s because, when it comes to security deposits, Missouri law is pretty tenant-friendly. Landlords can’t demand deposits larger than two months of rent, and they’ve got only 30 days to decide whether to refund a deposit or keep it. If they pick the latter, landlords need to detail their reasons in writing. If a tenant has paid rent on time and hasn’t tried to move out early, landlords can tap deposits only to repair damage to rental units — and those need to be real damage, not the kind associated with normal wear and tear.
Illinois offers similar protections. State law there doesn’t cap the size of a security deposit, but it requires landlords who own more than 25 units to keep the money in an interest-bearing account if it is held for more than six months.
Alverson said that, to protect themselves in future security-deposit disputes, tenants need a paper trail.
“Judges are going to want to see documentation,” Alverson said. “Tenants need to be able to prove there was a security deposit, prove they vacated (the apartment), prove they requested the return of the deposit and prove that they left the unit in good condition.”
Alverson said tenants should insist on written leases, and they should get any other agreement — like one to shorten the lease term — in writing. When they move out, tenants should promptly fire off a letter requesting the return of the deposit.
Here’s some other ways to protect against deposit-hungry landlords:
• When first viewing a rental, ask whether the landlord routinely spruces up the place between tenants. It might be standard procedure to paint walls or steam-clean carpets. If it is, you can use that against the landlord if he tries to deduct those expenses from your deposit.
• When reviewing a lease, take note of any upfront charges for cleaning the apartment after you leave. If there’s an automatic charge, make sure the landlord doesn’t try to double dip using the deposit.
• Research the landlord or, if there is one, the property management company. If an apartment is part of big building or multiunit complex, check for tenant complaints filed with the BBB.
• Before you move in, walk through the apartment snapping pictures. If there’s a broken tile, a tiny carpet stain or an easy-to-overlook nail hole, photograph it. Date-stamp the pictures, or e-mail them to yourself to prove they predate your tenancy.
• After you move out and clean the unit, take more pictures. If a landlord tells a judge you trashed the place, you’ll have evidence to the contrary.