Know your rights: Landlord can't just charge a fee

I have been living in the same apartment for about seven months.

Yesterday, we received a notice stating that the landlord was charging an additional "fee" because his cost for taxes, utilities and maintenance have gone up. Is this legal? Do I have to pay? I would not have signed the lease if I knew it could go up this much.

If you have a lease, it determines how much you can be charged and whether the landlord has any right to charge an additional fee or raise the rent. Based on what you have shown me, I do not see anything authorizing the landlord to add a fee because of increased costs. I suggest you speak with your landlord and ask him to please show you where in the lease it provides for this additional fee.

If he can't, you are not obligated to pay it. I sympathize with his dilemma of being forced to pay higher costs, but look at it from the other side. If your income was reduced and you went to the landlord asking to pay less in rent, I am sure he would say, "you signed a lease, and that is how much you owe." What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

My neighbor is building a house. The contractor banged into my fence and knocked down a large section. Who is liable for the damage, the neighbor or the builder?

The fact that your neighbor is building the house does not make the neighbor responsible for acts of the builder. Your neighbor did not engage in any wrongful conduct, and Texas law does not make an owner liable for acts of contractors. On the other hand, the builder owes you an obligation to not damage your property.

If the builder was negligent and banged into the fence in a manner that damaged your property, the builder should be responsible for the cost of replacing the fence. I suggest you talk with the builder and ask for compensation or a new fence.

I had a minor accident. I believe it was the other person's fault, but he says it was not his fault. His insurance company has refused to pay me. It is not a lot of money. Can I sue his insurance company in small claims court?

You may sue in small claims court if the amount is under $10,000. You sue the person who hit you, however, not the insurance company. It will be up to him to bring the insurance company into the lawsuit. Of course, you will have to prove that the accident was, in fact, the other person's fault.

Someone who owes me money just died. Am I out of luck?

You may still be able to collect from the person's estate. You should file a claim with the executor or administrator of the estate. If there are any available assets in the estate, they will be used to pay the money you are owed.

I want to know what I can and cannot say about former employees when asked for a reference. Can I say they were fired and why? Can I talk in detail about their work history? I want to be honest but do not want to be sued.

In most cases, employers disclose very little about former employees. Often, all that is stated is the period of time for which they were employed. As far as the law is concerned, however, you may disclose most matters related to work. The only limitation on what may be disclosed are the defamation laws. If you were to say things that were untrue, you could be liable for damages.

My mother is being harassed by a debt collector for her brother's debt. The last call scared her because they threatened to take her house. How can I stop them from harassing her? She never signed anything agreeing to pay his debts. They are getting her very upset.

A federal law, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, strictly regulates debt collectors. Based on what you say, the debt collector has violated this law in several ways. First, this law prohibits a debt collector from contacting anyone other than the debtor, except in very limited circumstances. In other words, merely talking to your grandmother about paying her brother's debt is probably unlawful.

The debt collector is also violating the law by harassing your grandmother and by threatening to take her house, an action prohibited by Texas law. I suggest your grandmother send a certified letter to the debt collector making it clear that she does not owe this debt.

She should let them know she knows her rights and demand they stop contacting her. My guess is that this will resolve the problem.

If it doesn't, this sounds like the type of case an attorney would be willing to assist her with. For more information about this law, take a look at the debt collection section on my website.

Richard Alderman, a consumer advocate popularly known as "the People's Lawyer," is a professor at the University of Houston Law School in Houston. His column appears weekly in the Victoria Advocate. Write to him at UH Law Center, Houston, Texas 77204-6391. He also maintains a website at peopleslawyer.net.