What Rights Does a Tenant Have If Their Water or Electricity Is Shut Off?

What Rights Does a Tenant Have If Their Water or Electricity Is Shut Off?

Last updated: June 2009

The following questions were submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette.  This article was published on September 16, 2008.

Q:    Is it legal for a landlord to shut off a tenant’s water or electricity?  If it’s illegal, what rights does the tenant have? 

A:    It’s illegal for a landlord to use “self-help” to evict a tenant.  A “self-help” eviction means the landlord does it entirely himself, without going to court.  An illegal eviction can make the landlord liable to the tenant for money damages.

In general, the law frowns on self-help, and establishes orderly legal procedures to resolve disputes.  The procedure set up to resolve landlord-tenant disputes, about whether the tenant must move, is called the Forcible Entry and Detainer Act.  It’s buried in Article 9 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure.

The two basics of an eviction case are written notice, and a court case.  Without the first, you can’t do the second.

Eviction notices come in 3 basic flavors:  5, 10, and 30 day.  A 5 day notice—the most common kind—is for non-payment of rent.  A 10 day notice can be used for lease violations.  A 30 day notice can be used only if there’s a month-to-month lease, which usually happens with an oral, unwritten lease, but occasionally occurs with a written lease.

A 5 day notice is the only kind that gives the tenant a chance to stop the eviction.  If the tenant pays the rent that’s owed within 5 days of getting the notice, they’re caught up, and the landlord can’t evict.

Otherwise, the landlord must wait until after the 5, 10, or 30 days after delivery of the notice have expired, and then take the second step of filing a court case.  Through the court case, a landlord may get an eviction order from a judge, which the sheriff can enforce by actually removing the tenant and/or their property.

That’s the only legal way to evict someone.  Although there’s no law that says explicitly “self-help eviction is illegal,” that’s implicit from the fact that the FED Act is the only legal procedure.

It doesn’t matter how much money the tenant may owe—the landlord must still follow the eviction procedures. 

If they don’t, and take the law into their own hands by trying to make the tenant move by cutting utilities, or changing locks, or removing doors, or any number of other methods, the tenant has two options.  First, they can the call the police.  Although that often results in the police saying that it’s a “civil matter,” that the police mustn’t get involved in, it should result in the landlord being told to stop, and to evict the tenant the right way. 

If calling the police doesn’t help, and if the landlord won’t agree to back down, the tenant’s second option is to sue in court for an injunction to stop the illegal eviction.  An injunction is a court order requiring the landlord to put things back they way they were, by restoring the power, or doors, or by removing the locks. 

The tenant can also sue for damages, which include the expenses of being displaced, and possibly something for inconvenience, or even punitive damages.

Again, the fact that the tenant may be behind in rent doesn’t stop them from being able to sue to get back in an apartment.  The idea is keep the peace and make evictions an orderly process, since illegal evictions often end violently. 

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