Bad Form – Failure to Serve a Summons with Mandatory Language Proves Costly for Landlord

On June 8, 2006 I wrote in an article posted on this site about the new summons for residential unlawful detainer actions in Washington.  In that article I wrote:

Amendments to the Washington Residential Landlord-Tenant Act went into effect yesterday….It is unclear what…courts will do when inevitably many landlord plaintiffs – acting pro se or with attorneys not familiar with the new law – come into court having served the old eviction summons.

A decision published last month by Division I of the Washington Court of Appeals held that a landlord had wrongfully evicted a tenant because the landlord’s attorney had caused the tenant to be served with an older version of the eviction summons.

Under the applicable statute as amended in mid 2005, the summons must contain certain mandatory language that informs the tenant that the tenant may respond by fax.  The summons the landlord’s attorney served contained a fax number, but not the mandatory language stating that the tenant may respond by fax.

The Court of Appeals held that failure to include the language mandated by statute was fatal to the trial court’s jurisdiction and ordered the case dismissed, about a year and a half after the eviction lawsuit was originally filed.

The court made a distinction between “form and content” requirements, for which substantial compliance is sufficient, and “time and manner” requirements, for the landlord is held to a strict compliance standard.

In the context of a residential unlawful detainer action, the summons must comply with RCW 59.18.365 to confer both personal and subject matter jurisdiction. Because the unlawful detainer action is in derogation of the common law, courts must strictly construe it in favor of the tenant.

The lesson here is the law changes and a landlord should be very careful using form kits or attorneys who do not specialize in landlord-tenant law, either of which may not be up to date on landlord-tenant law.

Travis Scott Eller

Washington Landlord-Tenant Attorney