A trial will be held unless the tenant pays all of the back rent and the landlord’s court costs on or before the court date.
If the tenant pays the landlord all of the back rent and court costs on or before the date for the eviction trial, the tenant can ask for the case to be dismissed. This opportunity exists only if the tenant has not received a 5-day demand letter within the 6 months immediately prior to the date the eviction case was filed.
The trial is the opportunity for the landlord and tenant to present evidence to a judge relative to their respective positions.
At trial the landlord will have to establish the following:
- that he or she owns the rental unit or otherwise has authority to evict the tenant (as a property manager, for example);
- the amount of rent that the tenant is supposed to pay and when;
- the amount of rent that is more than 15 days past due;
- that a 5-day demand letter was sent to the tenant; and
- that the tenant did not pay rent in response to the demand and is still in possession of the rental.
These facts can generally be established through testimony from the landlord or property manager. A district court judge may ask for other evidence, such as a property deed to prove ownership, a copy of the lease to prove the terms of the rental agreement, and sometimes even a copy of the 5-day demand letter
Landlords who are not represented by an attorney should try to observe a few eviction trials before their court date. This will provide a sense of how the process works and what the judge expects. Observing a few eviction trials will help the self-represented landlord prepare for his or her own case and avoid potential delays due to a lack of evidence or failure to prove all of the required elements.
Once the landlord’s case has been presented, the tenant will have a chance to explain his or her version of the facts to the judge.
A tenant who is being evicted for non-payment of rent can present defenses for not paying. A tenant can also potentially file a counterclaim against the landlord. Remember, the complaint for eviction for non-payment of rent needs to be served with a blank answer form. That answer form provides a space for the tenant to allege claims against the landlord.
For simplicity, we will assume that the tenant has no counterclaim. In that case, the tenant will only be able to avoid an adverse judgment and remain in the rental unit by presenting legitimate legal reasons for not paying rent. Not paying rent due to habitability issues with the rental unit (lack of heat, infestation, building code violations, etc.) is a common, and often valid reason for not paying rent.
On the other hand, simply not being able to pay the rent is never a valid defense. A tenant who has a valid reason for not paying rent should be prepared with evidence like photographs of the poor conditions or witnesses who have knowledge about the situation.
After trial, the judge will enter a decision in a formal document called a judgment. Entry of the judgment is the fifth step in the eviction process for non-payment of rent in Rhode Island.
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