Can My Landlord Force Me to Sign A New Contract?
By Zachary C. Myers
Tom the landlord owns Cougar Berry Apartments. Currently he has filled about half of the apartments with tenants, one of which is Jerry.
Tom wants to attract more tenants by adding a pool to the property. He is also paranoid about cat burglars, so he decides to invest in a high-tech security system for the apartments, including gated entry to the parking lot and fingerprint scanners at all doors.
After the pool is completed, Tom tells Jerry and the other tenants that they can come to his office to pick-up new pool keys. When Jerry arrives Tom asks him to sign some documents. Jerry skims the documents and notices that they include a brand new lease agreement with several new terms including a new pet policy (no dogs allowed) and a clause that requires him to pay a monthly pool maintenance fee. The agreement also requires all guests to undergo criminal background checks and be added to an approved guest list.
Jerry thinks the pool would be a nice perk, but he thinks he will not use it very often; therefore, he decides it is not worth it to him to pay a monthly pool maintenance fee.
Additionally, Jerry loves hosting elegant soirees with his broad social network. He is afraid that pre-screening and background checks would prevent many of his more eclectic and free-spirited guests from attending.
Jerry tells Tom that he would rather not sign the papers and would be fine without the pool key.
Tom tells Jerry that if he doesn’t sign the new lease agreement, he will not be added to the new security system and will not be able to access his apartment.
Jerry’s original lease doesn’t end for another year, and it has no provision for renewing the lease. Jerry hates the idea of finding a new apartment and moving all of his things.
Does Jerry have to sign the new lease agreement? What recourse does he have?
Can the Landlord Change the Lease Agreement?
A landlord cannot change the terms of a lease agreement in the middle of the lease.
Jerry does not have to sign anything from his landlord, Tom, during the middle of his lease term. Jerry already has a lease agreement, and Tom is not allowed to exclude him from his apartment during the lease. Therefore, Jerry can refuse to sign the papers, and Tom has no right to exclude Jerry from the apartment. Tom should add Jerry to the security system or otherwise allow Jerry to access the apartment.
However, at the end of the term of Jerry’s lease, Tom can terminate the lease and force Jerry to move. At that time, Jerry will have to execute a new lease agreement with Tom or leave the apartment. If Jerry does not want to agree to Tom’s terms, he will have to move in a year.
Is the New Lease Legally Binding?
In order to be legally binding a lease agreement must involve a bargained for exchange. In law, this is called “consideration.” Unilateral promises, i.e. promised gifts, are not legally binding. Therefore, if Tom told Jerry, I promise to give you some cheddar tomorrow to show my appreciation, Jerry could not force Tom to honor that promise. There is no consideration, or mutual exchange, just a unilateral promise.
If a proposed lease agreement does not include any consideration, then it is not legally valid. For example, if Tom told Jerry he must sign a new lease with increased monthly rent in order to keep his apartment and gave nothing to Jerry in exchange, this lease would be invalid. Jerry already had a right to stay in the apartment; therefore, Tom gave Jerry nothing in exchange for his promise to pay extra rent. Because there was no consideration, the new lease is not legally enforceable.
However, in the original example, Tom offers Jerry access to a new pool and use of a new high-tech security system in exchange for Jerry’s promises to keep dogs out of the apartments, pay a monthly pool maintenance fee, and submit his guests to background checks. The proposed agreement is legally binding, because there is consideration for the new lease.
An agreement is not valid if it is entered as a result of physical violence or an improper threat, i.e. “duress.”
If Jerry signs the new lease proposed by Tom, he could argue that it is invalid because it was signed under duress. Tom threatened to exclude Jerry from his apartment if he did not sign the new lease. This improper threat is likely enough to void the lease agreement.
Jerry can try to reason with Tom to persuade him to do the right thing. Tom is bound by the original lease agreement and cannot exclude Jerry from the property during the lease term.
If Tom ignores Jerry, changes the security system, and excludes Jerry from the apartment, then Tom is liable to Jerry for triple the cost incurred by Jerry as a result of the lock-out. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6-811. For example, if Jerry pays $100 per night for a hotel while locked-out of his apartment, then Tom owes Jerry $300 for every night he is locked out.
Jerry should speak with an attorney that specializes in landlord-tenant disputes. A qualified attorney has a better chance of persuading the landlord, Tom, to honor the original lease agreement. Furthermore, if Tom is unreasonable, an attorney can use the law to recover money for Jerry and vindicate his rights.
For specific guidance regarding your dispute with a landlord call Hepworth, Murray, and Associates for a free consult.
 There is somewhat of an exception to this rule if an individual reasonably relies on a promise to their detriment.
This article was written by Attorney Zachary C. Myers of Hepworth & Associates and Associates. Mr. Myers is a Utah Real Estate Attorney who focuses his practice on real estate litigation.