Learn About Eviction in Georgia
Eviction: What Does It Mean For You?
Legal Information: The people who appear in this video are actors and the situation is fictional. The video is for information only, and it is not meant to provide legal advice. Information may become outdated as laws change. The legal information in this video applies only to Georgia. You should talk to a lawyer about your individual situation.
Tony: Thanks for talking to me, Karen. I’m not sure I’m going to do.
Karen: No problem, Tony. It can’t be that bad. Tell me what happened.
Tony: Well, I’m being evicted. My landlord says I have to leave and I have no place to go.
Karen: You know, I help out with evictions all the time at the complex where I work. Let me try to help. One thing I know is that there’s a very specific process that the landlord has to follow before they can make you move out of your apartment.
Tony: Okay, well—can you help me figure out what’s happened? I’ve lost my job; I have no place to go.
Karen: The first thing you need to know is that the landlord cannot make you move out of that apartment without a court order.
Narrator: In Georgia, self-help evictions are illegal. Landlords may not change locks, turn off utilities, or put a tenant’s things out without a court order. Landlords must give tenants notice to leave and landlords must file a court case in State or Magistrate court in the county where the tenant lives. Only a judge can order a tenant to leave a rental unit.
Tony: Did he give me a court order?
Karen: Let’s see… well, it looks like your landlord sent you a letter about being behind on your rent. And then, next, he filed court papers asking the court for a court order.
Narrator: In Georgia, evictions are called “dispossessory actions”. They can be filed for failure to pay rent, if a tenant breaks an important part of the lease, or the lease expires without being renewed. Before filing papers in court, a landlord must give the tenant notice to leave, called a “demand for possession”. Special rules may apply to tenants renting foreclosed property.
Karen: So how did you get these papers?
Tony: My friend as at my apartment the day that I was at the grocery store.
Karen: Okay, well your time to respond to these papers started the day that they brought the papers to your friend.
Narrator: In Georgia, lawsuits are served by the Sheriff, the Marshall , or someone by the court. The landlord cannot deliver the papers. There are two ways to be served with notice of an eviction lawsuit. If the papers are hand delivered to someone living in the rental unit (called personal service), then the court can order the tenant to leave and can also order the tenant to pay money owed to the landlord. Often, papers are just sent by US mail and left at the tenant’s door. This is called “tack and mail” service. The court can only order the tenant to leave and cannot order the tenant to pay money owed to the landlord with tack and mail service. However, if the tenant files court papers responding to the lawsuit or goes to the court hearing, then the court can order the tenant to pay money owed to the landlord.
Karen: So, if you want to stay, the best way to get out of this is to pay everything your landlord is asking for in these court papers. But, you have to do it before the deadline for answering this lawsuit.
Narrator: In Georgia, the tenant must file a written answer in person at the courthouse within seven days of receiving the dispossessory papers. Once every 12 months, you can avoid an eviction by paying your past due rent. Make sure you also pay late fees and court costs, or you could still be evicted. You can check with the court to find out the court costs.
Tony: Well that means the deadline’s tomorrow! I can’t get the money by tomorrow! And in fact, I have a job interview in the morning – I can’t make the filing.
Karen: Well, this is really important, because if you miss this deadline, your landlord will win the court case for sure. This happens all the time at the complex where I work. The tenant doesn’t answer, and the judge issues what’s a “default judgment”. The tenant gets put out right away – no court hearing.
Tony: Wow. That would be terrible. I need more time than that! Maybe my sister can take me in the morning before my interview.
Karen: I think that’s a good idea. So next, you have to decide what to put in your answer. Do you agree with what your landlord is telling you?
Tony: Well, I agree that I owe something, but the hot water heater didn’t work for two months and last winter when it got really cold, the furnace blew out and I had to stay with my sister for a couple of weeks.
Karen: OK, well you should definitely say those things in the answer that you file with the court. The part about disagreeing with what your landlord asks for is called the answer. The part about your landlord not making repairs is a claim that you had against the landlord and you put that in a section called a “counterclaim”.
Narrator: Often, dispossessory answer forms look like this. List your counterclaims here. (See video image) In Georgia, two kinds of courts commonly hold hearings on evictions: State Courts and Magistrate Courts. Some counties have both kinds of courts. Look carefully at your paperwork to ensure that you file your answer in the right court.
Tony: I’m really scared. I’ve never been to court before.
Karen: Well, the first step is just to file your answer with the Clerk of Court. And don’t send your sister or anybody else – you have to go yourself. The clerk isn’t going to accept your answer unless it’s filed by you or by a lawyer who represents you. After you file the papers, then the court clerk will tell you when to come back for a court hearing. And you should think very carefully about what you put in your answer. One easy way that landlords win these cases is when a tenant doesn’t list a single legal defense in their answer. And just saying you can’t afford to pay your rent because you’ve lost your job…that’s not a legal defense. The judge may just grant the landlord’s request without having a hearing if you don’t assert a defense. And you should probably plan on getting to court very early the morning of your hearing, because another easy way that landlords win is when the tenant doesn’t show up or doesn’t show up on time. The judge then issues what’s called a “default judgment” which means a judgment without any kind of court hearing and the tenant is ordered to get out of the rental unit right away.
Tony: Well, what will happen in court?
Karen: Well, some courts give you the chance to try to work out your case in what’s called “mediation”. Mediation is where a neutral person works with you and your landlord to try to come to a resolution of the case without the involvement of the judge. If you sign an agreement with your landlord in mediation, the judge will then sign it and it becomes the order of the court – just as powerful as if the judge had made a ruling in court. So, be very careful before you sign a mediation agreement, because they’re very difficult to appeal.
Tony: Well, I hope we have a chance for mediation. It sounds to me like it would be very intimidating in front of the judge.
Karen: Well, if you don’t agree in mediation or if one side refuses to mediate, then the judge will decide the case. Your landlord gets to talk first because your landlord brought the lawsuit. Then, it’s your turn to talk. And you should definitely plan on bringing any important papers that will help you prove your case. You should bring your lease, any letters you have, receipts for repairs, utility bills, pictures of the apartment. You can also bring witnesses or people who have firsthand information about the apartment, and make sure you bring those people with you because some written statement’s not going to be enough.
Tony: What happens if the judge decides I need to leave?
Karen: Well, you can ask for the judge for extra time to leave, but after that date that the judge sets, your landlord can get permission to have law enforcement assist them in physically removing your belongings and you from the apartment.
Narrator: In Georgia, the judge usually gives the tenant seven days to move. After the seventh day, the judge can sign a “writ of possession”, which gives the landlord permission to have the sheriff come and supervise the eviction.
Tony: What if I don’t agree with the judge’s decision?
Karen: You can file an appeal, but keep in mind that’s not necessarily going to keep you in the apartment much longer. If you want to file an appeal, you should really try to find a lawyer to help you. Keep in mind that if you file the appeal, you will have to pay what you already owe your landlord plus rent every month as long as the appeal is pending.
Tony: This sounds pretty overwhelming. Do you think I could find a lawyer to help me?
Karen: Well maybe, but you still have to meet all your court deadlines while you’re looking for a lawyer. You know what, I have tomorrow off. Why don’t I go with you to court and show you where to file your answer.
Tony: That’d be great, Karen. You’re a good friend.
Karen: Well, you’ve always been there for me.
Narrator: To find legal help if you are low-income, contact the Atlanta Legal Aid Society at 404-524-5811 if you live in Metro Atlanta. Contact the Georgia Legal Services Program at 1-800-498-9469 if you live outside Metro Atlanta. If you are not low-income or if you like a private attorney, contact the State Bar of Georgia for a referral at 404-527-8700. To learn more about foreclosure on the internet, go to our self-help website at www.legalaid-ga.org.
Written by: Kristin Nelson Verrill
Produced by: Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc. and Alston & Bird
Actors: Sarah Cipperly & Michael Nutter
This Project was made possible in part by a Technology Initiative Grant from the Legal Services Corporation. Technical expertise generously donated by Alston & Bird.
Video Development Committee: Tamara Sewer-Caldas, Marty Ellin, Margaret Kinnear, Cicely Barber, Mark Harper, Darwin Berman, Kristin Nelson Verrill
Special Thanks To: The Honorable Patsy Porter – State Court of Fulton County, The Honorable Jay Roth – State Court of Fulton County, The Honorable Sephani Lacour – Magistrate Court of Fulton County
Copyright Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc. 2011