Landlord can’t shut off utilities

Reprinted with the permission of the Ohio State Legal Services Association

Q. What is a utility shutoff?

A. A utility shut-off is like a lockout in the context of landlord-tenant law. This is not about the utility company turning off service (gas, electric, water, etc.) because the tenant failed to pay the bill.

A utility shutoff in landlord-tenant law occurs when the landlord takes action in order to try to force the tenant to leave. This can occur when a landlord fails to pay a bill for a utility in the name of the landlord or calls the utility company to request a shutoff in order to get the tenant to leave. Both are prohibited.

Q. Is it legal for the landlord to have any of my utilities terminated in order to get me to leave?

A. No. Just as lockouts were made illegal in 1973 with the passage of the Landlord/Tenant Law, the same statute that prohibits landlords from locking out tenants also prohibits landlords from terminating utility service in order to make the tenant leave. It is illegal. The only way a landlord can legally force a tenant to leave is by getting a court order to evict the tenant.

Q. What can I do if the landlord terminates utility service?

A. The options are the same as if the landlord locked out the tenant. Keep in mind that if the utility service is in the tenant’s name and the tenant has caused the termination, the landlord cannot be held responsible for this problem.

In addition, there is another practical problem with utility shutoffs. If the landlord allowed the utilities to be shut off by nonpayment, this may or may not be a “utility shutoff,” depending on the landlord’s intent.

If the landlord allowed the utility bill to go unpaid in order to force the tenant to move, then it is a shutoff. If the landlord simply failed to pay, for whatever reason (neglect or short of cash), then the tenant should consider a different option called escrow because this is now an issue of the landlord failing to maintain the conditions of the unit.

Q. This sounds complicated. Can I get legal help?

A. Possibly. Legal aid programs sometimes represent those who are locked out and/or give them specific advice through a hotline. Contact Community Legal Aid in Akron at 1-800-998-9454.