The Service Members Civil Relief Act
By Pierre Mouchette | Real Property Experts LLC
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) - protects those who serve their country by granting them special rights. Simply put, the SCRA serves our national security interests by assisting those called into active duty so their personal lives and the lives of their family members do not fall apart while the servicemember is performing their duties.
The SCRA is a complex law, and landlords with questions about how the law affects their unique situation with a tenant should consult an attorney for legal advice.
Landlord-tenant law is a state-by-state matter, with legislature setting the basic rules for security deposits and evictions. Many states follow the framework set by the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) of 1972 since participation in URLTA is voluntary, only a few federally-mandated rules on housing, such as the federal lead disclosure requirement.
SCRA helps servicemembers called to active duty, and their families, by allowing for the postponement or suspension of a range of civil obligations. These protections go far beyond rental housing contracts:
Who is Protected?
Military Service - the law covers all active-duty members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, and reservists called up for military service and National Guard ordered to active duty for more than 30 consecutive days. Additionally, it also includes commissioned officers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Public Health Service.
Legally, it covers all those on active duty paid under the direct control of the federal government under Title 10 of the U.S. Code and includes servicemembers stationed on military bases and naval vessels either in the United States or abroad.
Domestic Service - the 2003 update to the 1940 law expanded coverage to include federally trained. It paid members serving under Title 32 of the U.S. Code when they are called up for more than 30 consecutive days to respond to a national emergency under the command of a state governor. i.e., National Guard members called to duty after September 11, 2001, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina served under Title 32 and were subject to the protection of the SCRA.
Lease Terminations - under Title III of SCRA, servicemembers who enlist or are called to active duty for longer than 180 days may terminate month-to-month and other residential and business lease agreements if they give at least a 30-day notice.
Written Notice - a servicemember who seeks to break a lease must provide the landlord or property manager written notice of the termination, along with a copy of his or her military orders. The information may be delivered by hand, but it must be sent with a return receipt requested via the USPS if mailed.
Month-to-Month Agreements - for month-to-month agreements, once the notice is sent, the lease is terminated 30 days following the next date that rent is due after the notice is delivered.
All Other Leases - for all other leases, the termination is effective on the last day of the following month after the notice is received. At that point, the landlord has 30 days to return any prepaid rent and security deposits, except to cover unpaid rent or the repair of any actual damages the tenant is liable for under the lease agreement.
The law also allows courts to postpone the eviction of a servicemember’s spouse, children, or other dependents if military service affects the family’s ability to pay the rent. The law prohibits evictions outright, nor does it release servicemembers and their families from their obligations to pay the rent they owe. A landlord may still serve a termination notice if a servicemember or family member falls behind on rent, but the landlord is required to inform the court of the tenant’s active duty status. The judge would then consider whether the servicemember’s military status affects his or her ability to pay the rent and whether to delay the eviction or allow it to proceed.
Protection from Default Judgments
A default judgment can occur if a party to a lawsuit does not show up for court. For example, in eviction cases where a tenant fails to appear to contest the eviction, a landlord would then ask the judge for a default judgment granting the eviction.
SCRA requires the court to ask the landlord to file an affidavit verifying whether the tenant is active duty military. Alternately, if the plaintiff cannot provide such verification, the law requires an affidavit stating that the plaintiff could not determine the defendant’s military status.
Cases Can Be Re-Opened
Suppose a servicemember returns home from service to find they have a default judgment against them. In that case, the law also allows the servicemember to ask the court to re-open the judgment to allow for a proper defense. Furthermore, suppose a landlord knowingly reports false information to the court regarding someone’s military status under SCRA. In that case, the landlord can be fined and imprisoned for up to a year under the law.
Checking Active Duty Status
To verify a tenant’s active duty status for provisions under SCRA, the landlord must provide the court an affidavit with a report attached (called a Certificate) available for free from the official SCRA site operated by the Department of Defense.
The site search requires the requester to enter the individual’s name and either their date of birth or Social Security number, along with an active duty status date. When the request is submitted, the site immediately provides the report as a downloadable PDF file. This is a rare situation where a landlord needs to have a tenant’s Social Security Number (SSN). Without the tenant’s SSN, it is impossible to say with certainty that the generated report refers to the correct person because name and date of birth alone are not enough to identify someone uniquely.
If the requester provides only a name and date of birth, the report will include a disclaimer saying that the information is not authoritative.