Spotlight on Other Federal Laws Protecting Service Members and Veterans
Apart from your obligations under fair housing law, communities should know about—and comply with—two important federal laws protecting military service members and returning veterans. Failure to do so can lead to civil penalties or damages—even criminal fines and possibly a prison sentence.
Servicemembers Civil Relief Act
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2003 (SCRA) is a federal law that protects the financial security of service members who are called to active military duty. The SCRA, formerly known as the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act until it was amended in 2003, generally applies to all military members on federal active duty, including the regular forces, reserve/guard forces, and in some cases, their dependents, according to military legal assistance experts.
In addition to other financial protections, the SCRA includes specific provisions with respect to rental housing arrangements for service members called to active duty, including:
Right to terminate leases early. The law allows service members to terminate, without penalty, leases and rental agreements before or during active military service if the member meets certain conditions. In general, the member must be called to active-duty service for at least 90 days, or receive military orders for a permanent change of station, or orders to deploy for at least 90 days. The termination also ends the obligation of the service member's dependents under the lease.
The SCRA does not automatically terminate the service member's lease. The law requires the service member to give written notice of termination, along with a copy of the service member's orders. Oral notice is not enough; the law requires the notice to be “delivered,” by hand, by a commercial delivery service, or by U.S. mail, return receipt requested.
The SCRA provides that lease terminations are effective “30 days after the first date on which the next rental payment is due and payable after the date on which the notice…is delivered.” In general, that means that if, for example, a resident provides notice on March 15, and his rent is due on the first of each month, then the lease ends on May 1, according to military legal assistance guidelines.
The service member is required to pay rent for only those months before the lease is terminated, which in our example, means that he must still pay rent for April. If rent has been paid in advance, the owner must prorate and refund the unearned portion. If a security deposit was required, it must be returned to the service member within 30 days of the date of lease termination.
The law provides criminal penalties—including a fine or imprisonment for up to a year—for an owner who knowingly and wrongfully holds a security deposit or other property of a resident who lawfully terminated a lease under the SCRA.
Protection from eviction. The SCRA bars communities from evicting military members or their dependents from their principal residence during the period of their active military service without a court order. If the eviction case is started against a service member whose ability to pay the agreed rent is materially affected by military service (for example, a reservist has a pay decrease after being called to active duty), then the court may delay the proceedings or adjust the rent under the lease to accommodate the interests of the parties.
Complying with the SCRA should be at the top of community concerns when it comes to dealing with military service members, says F. Willis Caruso, Esq., co-executive director of the John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Support Center and Clinic. With increased focus on the needs of military service members, Caruso says that communities may expect federal officials to step up enforcement of SCRA.
Example: In September 2009, the Justice Department announced a settlement in its first lawsuit involving a landlord-tenant matter under the SCRA. The complaint alleged that a Virginia rental housing owner violated the SCRA by failing to return prepaid rent and security deposits to a resident, a U.S. Air Force colonel, who had terminated her lease early to comply with military orders to relocate to Georgia. Under the settlement, the owner agreed to pay the resident a total of $5,600 in damages and refrain from engaging in future violations of the SCRA.
“It is because of our men and women in uniform that we, as a nation, are able to enjoy great personal freedoms,” Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “It is therefore our duty, and our privilege, to protect the rights of our service members, as they protect us” [U.S. v. Ferdows Akhavan, Virginia, Sept. 2009].
USERRA of 1994
In their role as employers, communities must comply with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which protects civilian job rights and benefits for returning veterans and reserve members.
In general, USERRA provides that returning service members are reemployed in the job that they would have attained had they not been absent for military service, with the same seniority, status, and pay, as well as other rights and benefits determined by seniority, according to a DOL fact sheet. USERRA also requires that reasonable efforts (such as retraining) be made to enable returning service members to refresh or upgrade their skills to help them qualify for reemployment.
In addition, USERRA provides protection for disabled veterans, requiring employers to make reasonable efforts to accommodate the disability. Service members convalescing from injuries received during service or training may have up to two years from the date of completion of service to return to their jobs or apply for reemployment.
As with other federal laws protecting military service members, USERRA violations can be costly—employers may be found liable for back pay and benefits in addition to hefty civil penalties. For example, a Michigan employer last year agreed to pay $88,000 in back pay and $30,000 in damages to resolve allegations that it violated USERRA by failing to promptly reemploy an Iraq war veteran upon his return from military service, according to a statement released by the DOL's Veterans' Employment and Training Service.