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Beit Midrash Series P'ninat Mishpat

part II

Chapter 196

An Aggressive Landlord

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Case: The defendants (=def) rented an apartment from the plaintiff (=pl) as they were preparing for aliya, signing a two-year contract (via fax) and paying two months rent weeks before they were to come. The contract required them to give a security deposit "upon their arrival in Israel." Upon arrival, the relationship began tensely when def complained by phone about an element of the apartment’s condition, prompting pl to react with verbal aggressiveness. Upon their first face-to-face meeting, pl demanded the security deposit in cash or with an Israeli check. Def, who were without an Israeli bank account and were experiencing difficulties with cash transfer, were prepared to give only a foreign currency check, but pl viewed this as a ploy. Pl called daily, with the two sides barely understanding each other, speaking in a manner that pl referred to as resolute and def referred to as threatening. After meeting a rabbi and a lawyer, def took their advice to unilaterally back out of the rental. Pl sued for breach of contract, which had caused him the loss of four months’ rent (for non-occupancy) and the difference between def’s rental agreement and the lower rent of the new tenants. Def responded that it was not possible to continue living under the threat of eviction and possible violence. Their legal advisors also claim that the agreement was invalid because pl displayed a situation known as ayil v’nafik azuzei (anxiously seeking payment) and because pl did not sign the contract.
P'ninat Mishpat (579)
Various Rabbis
195 - Unsigned Estimates for a Contractor
196 - An Aggressive Landlord
197 - An Aggressive Landlord
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Ruling: [Last time we saw that the rental agreement was initially binding.]
Def brought no proof and only weak claims as to why they had reason to fear violent or illegal steps on pl’s part. Def made the impression of sensitive, timid people, and they come from a culture in which polite speech is the norm. Pl admits to speaking assertively, as he acted in beit din, which he feels is his right and is more accepted in Israel. Considering this and the fact that def had just arrived on aliya with minimal social and financial support, it is understandable that they would feel overwhelmed by the situation and even threatened. The question is whether that subjective feeling allows them to void a contract.
The Mishpat Tzedek (II, 31) allowed someone who rented a home on top of a store, which was subsequently rented to a violent non-Jew, to back out of the contract due to his fear of his neighbor. However, that was referring to a non-Jew with a proven record of violence in a society where anti-Semitism was tolerated. In this case, there are not subjective grounds for fear, just for the unpleasantness connected to financial disputes. Def also had other ways to deal with the situation, including having the rabbi or the lawyer deal with pl or looking for other tenants to take their place.
There are varied sources on the situation of bad relationships between landlord and tenant. The Rama (Choshen Mishpat 312:9) rules that one who rented a house to someone when they were friends cannot expel him when they become enemies. However, in 312:14 he says that if two people share a home and fought in court over ownership, the one who won the case can expel the other without a normal waiting period because of their enmity. The distinction is that in the former case, the relationship is just of landlord-tenant, whereas in the latter case, they share a home. Our case lacks the urgency that is grounds for breaking the contract.
The advice def received was not halachically/legally sound, and they are required to pay for the damages of the breached agreement. Beit din criticized pl’s insensitive and unwise behavior and urged him to significantly reduce the sum to which he is legally entitled to compensate for his behavior which, under the subjective circumstances, caused def pain and financial loss.
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