Disposition of Abandoned Property

landlord tenant law

In 2012, Act 129 was enacted to address the disposition of a tenant’s personal property left behind upon relinquishing possession of the premises. Prior to its passage, the Pennsylvania Landlord-Tenant Act was moot on this topic. Over the years, that silence has caused a multitude of issues between landlords and tenants regarding what to do with personal property left behind. These problems often resulted in litigation, as well as lost property, including family heirlooms and keepsakes. The Act was designed to eliminate this uncertainly and provide clarity on the disposition of personal property. At its center, the Act established safeguards for both landlord and tenant through notice requirements before personal property could be disposed of. Although Act 129 was a significant improvement, its utility has been somewhat limited. Following its passage, a number of concerns were raised by both landlords and tenants, as well as the judiciary. Those shortcomings have now been addressed with the passage of Act 167, which was signed into law by Governor Corbett on October 22, 2014 and went into effect on December 22, 2014.

It remains a fundamental principal that the tenant, whether the tenant is residential or commercial, shall remove all items of personal property at the time possession of the rental property is relinquished. Under the former revision, the method for disposing of the tenant’s personal property largely depended on whether an order of possession was issued in favor of the landlord, which essentially required a landlord to proceed with a landlord tenant complaint, thereby incurring additional costs. Pursuant to Act 167, personal property remaining on the premises is now deemed abandoned in the following scenarios, of which only 2 require actual court intervention:

(1) Tenant has vacated following termination of written lease;

(2) Landlord has obtained eviction order or order of possession, tenant vacates premises and has removed substantially all personal property;

(3) An eviction order or order for possession entered in favor of landlord has been executed;

(4) Tenant has provided landlord with forwarding address in writing, vacates the premises and has removed substantially all personal property; or

(5) Tenant has vacated premises without communicating an intent to return, rent is more than 15 days past due and, subsequent to those events, landlord posted notice of tenant’s rights regarding the property.

If one of the foregoing scenarios are present, the landlord may dispose of the abandoned property, however, not before providing the requisite notice to the tenant. Under the previous revision, notice of a tenant’s property rights was generally required in the lease, as well as in the order of possession, to effectuate the valid disposition of the abandoned property. Those requirements have now been discarded. Pursuant to Act 167, the landlord need only provide written notice of the tenant’s rights regarding the property prior to removing or disposing of the abandoned personal property. The notice must be substantially similar to the form set forth in the Act and provide the tenant 10 days to either retrieve the property or request that the property be stored up to 30 days. The notice must be sent by first class mail to the leased premises, any forwarding address provided by the tenant, and any address provided for emergency purposes.

Upon a timely request from the tenant in response to the aforementioned notice, the landlord is still required to retain or store the property at a place of the landlord’s choosing up to 30 days. The landlord may also continue to seek reimbursement of reasonable expenses incurred in the removal or storage of the personal property. At all times, a duty to exercise ordinary care in the handling and securing the tenant’s property remains on the landlord, as does the requirement to make the property reasonably available for purposes of retrieval.

If no intent is communicated within 10 days from the notice, or if the tenant fails to retrieve the property within 30 days of providing intent to retrieve the property, the landlord may dispose of the tenant’s personal property without further notice. Liability exposure for a landlord disposing of property is not precluded by the Act. Therefore, caution is strongly suggested before disposing of any property to ensure the requirements of Act have been strictly adhered to, no exceptions exist, and no other statutory grounds are available for a tenant to seek damages.

Act 167 makes clear that a landlord may not dispose of or otherwise exercise control over personal property remaining upon an inhabited premises without the express permission of the tenant. Also, if one of the foregoing abandonment scenarios cease to exist, the landlord shall have no right to dispose of or otherwise exercise control over the property. Rather, the landlord must forego with any self-help permitted under the Act and proceed with the commencement of a landlord tenant complaint to obtain eviction.

It is important to note that Act 167 provides an exception to abandonment where an eviction order or order for possession has been entered in favor of the landlord and it has been executed. If the landlord has actual knowledge or is notified of a protection from abuse order entered for the protection of the tenant or a member of the tenant’s immediate family, the landlord shall refrain from disposing of or otherwise exercising control over the personal property of the tenant for 30 days from the date of the notice. If requested, storage must be provided for up to 30 days from the date of the request. Once the foregoing deadlines expire and the property is not retrieved, the landlord may proceed in the normal course provided under the Act.

Act 167 also addresses the scenario where a tenant is deceased and leaves personal property in the premises. In such a scenario, the requirements of this Act do not apply. Rather, the disposition of any personal property left behind is to be governed by the Pennsylvania Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code.

The requirements of Act 167 are waivable, much like a notice to quite. However, such a waiver must be set forth in the written lease and provide sufficient notice to the tenant of the property rights being waived.

Most notably, a landlord that violates the requirements of Act 167 shall be subject to treble damages (3x), as well as the reimbursement of tenant for reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs incurred.

Due to the importance if this amendment to the Landlord-Tenant Act, a revision or addendum to any existing lease is strongly recommended, as, without it, potential exposure can arise.

Should you or someone you know own rental or investment properties, call CGA Law Firm at (717) 848-4900 to schedule an appointment with Glenn J. Smith or one of our other knowledgeable attorneys.

This post was written by Glenn J. Smith, a shareholder of CGA Law Firm. Glenn is a member of CGA’s Litigation Practice Group, specializing in commercial, consumer and construction law, including landlord-tenant law. He frequently lectures across the Commonwealth regarding landlord-tenant law and regularly represents both landlords and tenants throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland.