Appellate court upholds attorney’s fee award for tenant CRLTO counterclaims

llwasteTenants are entitled to attorney’s fees when they prevail in Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance claims

The Illinois First District Appellate Court issued an opinion in the case of Shadid v. Sims involving a case of first impression (ie. there was no existing published case law on this) regarding whether or not tenants who prevail in a counterclaim predicated upon CRLTO claims are entitled to recover their attorney’s fees.

Let’s start with the facts and they are not uncommon from many situations landlords face in the City of Chicago these days and they provide good insight into the trouble landlords can find themselves in if they do not comply with the ordinance.  Shadid claimed that the Sims failed to pay rent and brought an eviction action against them.  That’s simple enough, right?  Well, the Sims came to court and filed affirmative defenses about the poor conditions of the property and counterclaims under the CRLTO claiming that the eviction was retaliatory and that the landlord failed to keep the premises free of bugs and vermin.

At trial, the tenant’s proved their affirmative defenses, successfully defending the eviction claim.  They did not win their case regarding the retaliatory eviction but they prevailed in their claim that the landlord failed to maintain the property in accordance with the building code (a violation of Section 5-12-110).  The court awarded no damages on the claim, but allowed the tenant to file a motion for attorney’s fees.  While not relevant, it is interesting to note that the attorney’s fees petition sought $9,878.  The landlord argued that the tenant is not entitled to attorney’s fees because the tenant was not a plaintiff.

You see, Section 5-12-180 of the CRLTO reads as follows: “Except in cases of forcible entry and detainer actions, the prevailing plaintiff in any action arising out of a landlord’s or tenant’s application of the rights or remedies made available in this ordinance shall be entitled to all court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees; provided, however, that nothing herein shall be deemed or interpreted as precluding the awarding of attorney’s fees in forcible entry and detainer actions in accordance with applicable law or as expressly provided in this ordinance. (emphasis added)”

The landlord argued that the tenant was not a “prevailing plaintiff” because they were the defendant in the action and, at best, a counter-plaintiff in the counterclaim.  The trial court agreed and dismissed the claim for attorney’s fees.  From there, the defendant appealed the case.

The appellate court reviewed the ordinance and noted that the ordinance itself states in 5-12-010 that it “shall be liberally construed and applied to promote its purposes and policies.”.  The court noted that the decision in Lawrence v. Regent Realty (the grand-daddy of all of the security deposit recovery cases) indicated that “the clear intent of the ordinance is to protect tenants”.

As a result, the court noted that the term “plaintiffs” must be interpreted to include counterplaintiffs.  The court then remanded the case to the trial court to determine the appropriate attorney’s fee award.

Items of note from this case:

1.  This case once again illustrates that the ordinance is intended to protect tenants.  Landlords are sometimes surprised that a tenant can parse each and every word of the ordinance and hold the landlord to strict compliance with the “exact words” of the law but the landlord generally cannot.

2.  This case illustrates that landlords need to spend a moment determining their potential CRLTO liability exposure before charging into court.  Counterclaims are powerful weapons in the hand of a tenant who can prove CRLTO violations.

3.  The tenant was awarded an award of ZERO on the counterclaim.  They got NOTHING.  However, they were entitled to an award of attorney’s fees.  Landlords need to be aware of the power of the fee shifting provision in the ordinance.  This defendant was looking for close to $10,000 in attorney’s fees despite not really suffering any harm that justified an award of damages (although the defendant was entitled to live rent-fee).

4.  The case does give some hints about the standard of review for an attorney’s fee petition in a CRLTO case.

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