Ask the Lawyer: ​​Tenants want out of lease after disabling surgery; landlord says ‘pay up

 Ask the Lawyer: ​​Tenants want out of lease after disabling surgery; landlord says ‘pay up’

Q: My husband and I have been living in a downtown apartment for several years. Unfortunately, just over a month ago, my husband had back surgery to address a degenerative condition. The surgery was not a success: My husband now relies on a wheelchair or a walker to get around. He needs help to get up the steps to the front door, and also needs help to get into the bedroom or bathroom because the doorways are too narrow for his wheelchair (luckily, a previous tenant installed grab-bars in the bathroom). We told our landlord about the situation, and told him we need to move to someplace with an accessible apartment as soon as possible. He said if we move before our lease expires (in another 10 months) we still have to pay for each month, and would also be subject to a penalty for early termination. Are there any laws would let us off the hook for at least some of this?

A: Unfortunately, Michigan’s Landlord-Tenant Act offers only limited protection for tenants who become disabled after signing a lease. Under MCL 554.601a, a tenant who has lived in a rental unit for more than 13 months is allowed to terminate the lease on 60 days’ written notice if the tenant “becomes incapable during the lease term of living independently, as certified by a physician in a notarized statement.” All leases signed or renewed after 1995 must contain this provision.

If your husband is no longer able to live independently, the law may be your easiest way to avoid at least some future lease payments. But, if he could live on his own (in the right apartment) the law is not of much use.

Even if the Landlord-Tenant Act doesn’t apply in your case, your landlord’s money grab may be illegal. Michigan law requires landlords to make an effort to re-lease the property, and charge the former tenant only for the months the unit was vacant (although the landlord can charge expenses involved in re-letting).

Your best bet could be under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), which forbids discrimination in housing based on disability (as well as on other factors, such as race, religion, color, sex, and religion). The law requires landlords to make “reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services” when needed to provide a person with a disability “an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” Courts have ruled that in cases like yours a change in the rules to allow early termination of a lease may be the kind “reasonable accommodation” the FHA envisioned.

A federal Court in Delaware, for example, ruled in 1996 that a change in a lease to allow early termination was required under the FHA where the tenant had to move out shortly after moving in, due to severe mental health issues that required hospitalization. In a 2012 case, a federal court in Virginia found a tenant had an FHA claim against a landlord who insisted on collecting rent for the entire lease period, even though the tenants had been forced to move out due to the husband’s disability. In that sad case, the husband had been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, a disease that left him unable to climb the stairs to the apartment, and which eventually took his life.

For help bringing an FHA suit, or just reminding your landlord of his legal responsibilities, you may wish to contact an attorney.

Troy Attorney Daniel A. Gwinn has a practice focused on employment law, civil rights litigation, probate, and trusts and estates. Contact him with your legal questions at or visit the website at “Ask the Lawyer” is informational only and should not be considered legal advice. 

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