Double Damages and Attorneys Fees Mandatory if Deposit was Wrongfully Withheld

In this case, the Supreme Court of Ohio held that once a court determines that the landlord has wrongfully withheld all or a part of the security deposit, the trial court must award double damages and attorney’s fees to the tenant.

Tenant Smith rented an apartment from Landlord Padgett for Three Hundred ($300.00) per month. Landlord failed to make certain promised repairs, and Tenant argued that this reduced the rental value of the apartment to Two Hundred Twenty Five Dollars ($225.00) per month. The trial court did not allow the tenant to testify as to his opinion of the rental value of the apartment. On appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court held that:

Where a landlord breaches a promise to make repairs to the leased premises and the tenant does not elect to make the repairs, the measure of damages is the difference between the rental value of the premises in their unrepaired condition and what the rental value would have been had the promised repairs been made. The stipulated rent amount is presumptive evidence of the rental value of the premises as repaired, but it is not conclusive. A lessee of real property is competent to give opinion testimony as to the rental value of the leased premises.

After the lease ended, Tenant moved out and gave written notice of his forwarding address for the return of his security deposit to Landlord. The landlord provided a written itemization within 30 days, but this itemization was found by the trial court to be inaccurate, and that Tenant should have been given back more money that he was. The tenant was then awarded that money, but not double damages or attorney fees. On appeal of this issue, the Ohio Supreme Court found that:

Under R.C. 5321.16(B) and (C), a landlord who wrongfully withholds a portion of a tenant’s security deposit is liable for damages equal to twice the amount wrongfully withheld and for reasonable attorney fees. Such liability is mandatory even if the landlord gave the tenant an itemized list of deductions from the deposit pursuant to R.C. 5321.16(B).

Smith v. Padgett (1991), 32 Ohio St.3d 344.