Fighting tenant’s counterclaim of $15,000+ to deprive court of eviction jurisdiction

On a few occasions, I have run into tenants (usually through their attorney) asserting a counterclaim against the Landlord of over $15,000. Tenant attorneys do this in order to deprive the Municipal Court of jurisdiction over the eviction claim. The main motivation behind doing so is to buy additional time. Transferring the matter from Municipal Court to Common Pleas Court involves at least 30 days and then getting the case set for an eviction hearing in Common Pleas can take even more time. Such transfers may also strengthen the tenant’s settlement position and force a landlord to compromise its original stance on the eviction.

I’ve seen some “creative” counterclaims asserted against my clients in order to fabricate counterclaims that exceeded the Municipal Court’s $15,000 jurisdiction limit. A commercial tenant asserted that the landlord included a false amount of rent owing on the eviction notice; that the amount of rent was not required to be included on the eviction notice; and that the sight of $12,000+ owing in back rent on the eviction notice incited panic among the tenant’s workers causing four of them to immediately walk off the job.

That was rich. The truth was more likely that the workers had not been paid in some time, and the eviction notice served to dispel recent promises of the tenant to pay unpaid wages.

The same tenant also asserted that it had a side agreement with the landlord. The agreement was that the tenant could deduct any and all repairs to the premises against rent owing. Magically, the tenant had managed to amass $12,000+ in repairs. I doubt any court would believe that the tenant had carte blanche authority to unilaterally authorize repairs and make unilateral deductions from rent payments.

Incidentally, the tenant’s attorney attempted to dissuade me from filing a second eviction action by stating that the magistrate would simply combine it with the original eviction case to be transferred to common pleas court. We never found out as that attorney never attended the second eviction hearing.

This attorney also made several other outlandish claims – the tenant’s plumber happened to be in court testifying in another matter that morning (of the $12,000+ in repairs, many were allegedly for plumbing issues); several of the tenant’s clients were also in eviction court that morning (I guess this was to support the tenant’s defamation/interference with business claims); that a simultaneous service of a 3 day notice for nonpayment of rent and a 30 day notice for termination of month to month tenancy invalidated both notices as they put conflicting demands upon the tenant (we later filed the second eviction action based upon holdover tenancy which was uncontested); and that the lease was invalid because the tenant had signed it one day after the signing deadline imposed in the lease (of course, the tenant had abided by the “invalid” lease for over two years).

The tenant’s attorney indicated to me that she had a copy of the counterclaims ready to file but did not “want” to file it and had advised her client against filing it. Such statements only gave me doubt as to the nature of the counterclaims and their purposes.

Tenants and tenant attorneys will often drag their feet on paying the transfer fee to officially transfer the case to Common Pleas Court. The landlord’s attorney must be proactive and either file a motion to remand the case back to municipal court (most likely this would be filed with the municipal court if the transfer fee has never been paid) because of the tenant attorney’s lack of diligence or pay the transfer fee to complete the transfer.

Franklin County Local Rule 9.04 governs this procedure:

9.04 (04-26-00) Prior to the clerk accepting a case transferred from the Franklin County Municipal Court, in which the demand contained in the counterclaim or cross-claim exceeds the monetary jurisdiction of that court, the counterclaimant or cross-claimant shall post security for costs in the sum equal to the amount required if the case was originally filed in the Common Pleas Court. The clerk shall immediately notify the counterclaimant or cross-claimant of the security for costs. If the counterclaimant or cross-counterclaimant fails to post such security, the case shall be remanded to the Municipal Court.

The local rule does not provide any time limit for this payment to take place. I believe the time limit is 30 days and am seeking confirmation of that period as well as when the clock starts to run.

The best method I’ve found for expediting the matter and avoiding Common Pleas Court altogether is to file a new eviction action in Municipal Court once a new lease violation has occurred. The tenant may have exhausted his/her/its financial resources; fail to rehire the original attorney; and not even appear at the next eviction hearing. If the tenant chooses to defend the subsequent eviction action, the tenant may attempt to argue that the second eviction action should be combined with the prior eviction case that is, more likely than not, languishing in limbo because the tenant has failed to pay the transfer fee.

Arguments countering the tenant’s position include:

1. The tenant asserted the counterclaim in the original eviction action merely for the purposes of delaying litigation, needlessly compounding expenses and time, and never had any intention of following through with the counterclaim as evidenced by its continuing failure to pay the transfer fee (if the hearing for the second eviction occurs after the deadline for paying the transfer fee, this only strengthens the plaintiff’s case);

2. The plaintiff has filed a motion to remand the original eviction back to the Municipal Court because of the tenant’s failure to pay the transfer fee;

3. The second eviction action is the result of a new lease violation that was not a subject of the original eviction action;

4. The tenant’s counterclaim for damages is fully addressed in the original eviction case now pending (or languishing) in the Common Pleas Court;