Tenants have been awarded damages after a tribunal found the actions of their landlord amounted to harassment. Photo / 123RF
A landlord who harassed her tenants must pay them $800 in damages, because of text messages she sent them and the contents of a conversation one of the tenant’s recorded.
The amount is part of a total $2350 that property owner Briar Laurie has been ordered by the Tenancy Tribunal to pay the tenants.
The tribunal has now released its decision after a hearing last week reported by Open Justice.
Laurie became the couple’s landlord following the death of her father, although she had lived in a separate dwelling at the property for periods prior to them moving in, in 2019.
The tenants, who cannot be named, told last week’s hearing about a number of problems they had experienced before they eventually lodged a claim with the tribunal.
The tenants sought exemplary damages for harassment, for the landlord acting to terminate without grounds, and for events that occurred in March this year.
Compensation for costs incurred due to electricity use by the landlord from the tenants’ supply was also sought.
Further issues raised by the tenants at the hearing included the disruption to their quiet enjoyment from unnotified tree maintenance in May this year, suspected harm to a pet cat from the landlord’s kitten, and a broken stovetop.
The landlord did not attend the hearing but was represented by her property manager.
Tribunal adjudicator Michael Brennan said this disappointed the tenants but because the landlord had been correctly served and chose not to attend there was no reason to adjourn the hearing.
The tenants claimed the landlord harassed them between March 18-20 this year, in the form of a series of text messages, and a verbal altercation at the premises.
The landlord’s tone, offensive language, and incorrect statements regarding tenant obligations which were heard in a voice recording played at the hearing, were concerning, the tribunal said.
“Having considered the sequence and content of the messages and voice recording I have determined the landlord acted in such a way that it should be found an unlawful act of intentional harassment was conducted by the landlord over March 18-20,2022,” the decision said.
Brennan said awarding exemplary damages was not a straightforward determination, given the apparent emotional state of the landlord, but he reflected on a High Court decision and weighted his decision on the need to deter as well as punish.
“Whatever the background and circumstances for the landlord at that time, it was unacceptable for the landlord to act towards the tenants as she did.”
He said $800 in damages was toward the lower end of possible awards, but as the tenants stated, their primary motivation was for the landlord’s behaviour to change, rather than any monetary order.
A claim that the landlord acted unlawfully by threatening to terminate the tenancy was dismissed.
As part of the extended message exchange, Laurie had inferred a deadline in which they were to leave and included ads for other rental properties she considered the tenants might consider.
The tenants viewed this as her acting to terminate the tenancy without entitlement.
The tribunal said no subsequent formal 28-day notice letter was served.
“Any such letter from the landlord purporting to terminate the tenancy as signalled would have been counter to the statutory provisions and would have merited further deliberation per s 60AA, but I do not find the threat in the message to be a notice to terminate,” the adjudicator said.
Neither was he certain the landlord had sufficient knowledge, nor the intent at that time to end the tenancy.
A claim for $1530 in electricity costs was awarded in full.
Earlier in the tenancy an informal process was used to account for electricity used by the landlord or others.
At that time such an approach seemed sufficient but in 2021 Laurie moved into the adjourning premises on a permanent basis.
This, and later concerns about unexpected, higher electricity use due to Laurie building a tiny home on the property meant the tenants requested appropriate metering be installed.
This was arranged but no accounting process was established, the decision noted.
An informal agreement was reached that the landlord pay $20 a week toward power costs, but no payments were made.
The landlord accepted the tenant’s calculation that $1530 was owed for power use.
The “contentious issues of tree maintenance” appeared resolved after the landlord attended to a number of trees appropriately, with the assistance of an arborist, despite the tenants receiving no prior notice.
“There is no absolute requirement for a landlord to give prior notice to attend to outside areas, but it should go without saying that it is a minimum courtesy to provide some prior notice for intrusive and potentially hazardous activities such as tree trimming.”
The tribunal acknowledged the tenants’ frustration on this point, but said it appeared the property manager was unaware of the planned activity and could therefore not provide better notice.
It was also concerned about efforts to recover insurance excess costs from the tenants after a ceramic stovetop exploded in July.
The tribunal was however unable to comment further because the tenants said they planned to follow up with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.
The tenants’ claim that injuries to their pet cat were caused by the landlord’s kitten could not be established, and was therefore not a matter for the tribunal.
Neither did it have the authority to order the landlord to formally apologise to the tenants as requested.