IOWA CITY — Several provisions commonly included in Iowa City apartment leases are illegal because they unfairly shift costs from landlords to tenants, a judge ruled this week in a case that could affect thousands of tenants.
Judge Douglas Russell's ruling, issued Tuesday, is a victory for the Iowa City Tenants' Project, which is bringing class-action lawsuits against landlords on behalf of current and former tenants.
Russell ruled that landlords cannot automatically charge tenants for carpet cleaning when their leases expire, cannot charge tenants for damage caused by others to common areas and cannot remove the landlord's liability for injury and damage to tenants, among others. All of those provisions are illegal under Iowa law and should be removed, he wrote in a 13-page order.
Russell certified the case as a class-action, but the exact size of the class and the amount of any damages would have to be determined later. He said a trial should determine whether landlord Tracy Barkalow included the provisions "knowingly and willfully," which would qualify the class for punitive damages meant to punish and deter wrongdoing.
Christopher Warnock, a lawyer for the Iowa City Tenants' Project, said the ruling should have broad effects in Iowa City. Barkalow, a mid-sized landlord with about 80 tenants, uses the same lease as the Clark family, which has long been the dominant player in the Iowa City rental market. Warnock is pursuing a similar class-action lawsuit against the Clarks.
Warnock said Friday he expected both sides to appeal aspects of Russell's ruling to the Iowa Court of Appeals. He believes the ruling means landlords are likely to have to refund some fees, such as those assessed for carpet cleaning and other unjustified or excessive fees assessed against tenants.
"The carpet cleaning and penalty fee rulings are the most important," he said in a statement. "Many landlords in Iowa City and throughout the state have been illegally charging tenants non-existent damages and charging for carpet cleaning without proof the carpets are even dirty."
Barkalow's attorney, Rob Hogg, didn't immediately return a phone message.