STATE OF WISCONSIN
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
J.B. VAN HOLLEN
Kevin M. St. John
Deputy Attorney General
Steven P. Means
114 East, State Capitol
P.O. Box 7857
Madison, WI 53707-7857
Date July 30, 2013 OAG-04-13 ReStartSecretary
Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection
Post Office Box 8911
Madison, WI 53708-8911
BodyStart¶ 1. Through a letter from Chief Legal Counsel David V. Meany, you have requested an opinion concerning the lawfulness of certain residential lease provisions under Wisconsin statutes.
¶ 2. Some residential rental agreements in Wisconsin contain provisions requiring the tenant to pay the cost of professionally cleaning carpets at the termination of the tenancy. You question whether such provisions impermissibly waive the landlord’s statutory obligation to keep rental premises in a reasonable state of repair, thereby rendering such residential rental agreements void.
QUESTIONS PRESENTED AND BRIEF ANSWERS
¶ 3. You first ask, based on current law: does routine carpet cleaning at the end of a tenancy fall within the landlord’s duty to keep the premises “in a reasonable state of repair” as prescribed by Wis. Stat. § 704.07(2)?
¶ 4. In my opinion, the answer is no. Landlords’ statutory duty to keep premises in a reasonable state of repair does not encompass routine carpet cleaning.
¶ 5. Your second question is: would a provision requiring the tenant to pay for professional carpet cleaning, in the absence of negligence or improper use by the tenant, render a rental agreement void under Wis. Stat. § 704.44(8)?
¶ 6. In my opinion, the answer is no. Because routine carpet cleaning is not a statutorily-imposed obligation of a landlord, assigning this responsibility to a tenant through a contractual provision does not render a rental agreement void.
¶ 7. Residential tenancies in Wisconsin are governed by both Chapter 704 of the Wisconsin Statutes, and by Wis. Admin. Code ch. ATCP 134, which was promulgated and is administered by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). ¶ 8. Wis. Stat. § 704.07 prescribes the respective duties of landlords and tenants. Of relevance here, the statute provides that “[e]xcept for repairs made necessary by the negligence of, or improper use of the premises by, the tenant, the landlord has a duty to . . . [k]eep in a reasonable state of repair portions of the premises over which the landlord maintains control.” Wis. Stat. § 704.07(2)(a)1. Conversely, tenants are responsible for repairing damage caused by “negligence or improper use of the premises by the tenant.” Wis. Stat. § 704.07(3)(a). The statute is silent on the subject of responsibilities that fall outside the scope of “repairs.” ¶ 9. Both the statute and the administrative rule preclude residential leases from shifting the landlord’s statutory obligations onto the tenant. Section 704.07(1) of the statutes provides as follows: “An agreement to waive the requirements of this section in a residential tenancy, including an agreement in a rental agreement, is void.” The administrative code provides that “[n]o rental agreement may . . . [w]aive any statutory or other legal obligation on the part of the landlord to deliver the premises in a fit or habitable condition, or maintain the premises during tenancy.” Wis. Admin. Code § ATCP 134.08(7). ¶ 10. The Legislature, through enactment of 2011 Wisconsin Act 143, has incorporated the DATCP rule language into the statutes. Newly created Wis. Stat. § 704.44(8) provides that a residential rental agreement is void if it “[w]aives any statutory or other legal obligation on the part of the landlord to deliver the premises in a fit or habitable condition or to maintain the premises during the tenant’s tenancy.”
¶ 11. According to your letter, “some residential leases in Wisconsin contain clauses requiring the tenant to pay for the cost of cleaning the carpet upon termination of the tenancy regardless of whether the tenant has damaged the carpet due to willful or negligent use.” The question posed by your letter is whether such clauses are permissible under the statutes cited above.
¶ 12. You indicate that DATCP has taken the position that such carpet cleaning clauses are unlawful, relying on a letter authored by an Assistant Attorney General in 2001. That letter concluded that the carpet cleaning provisions of the type at issue here impermissibly waive a landlord’s statutory obligation to keep the rental unit in a reasonable state of repair, by shifting the landlord’s responsibility to the tenant. According to the letter, such provisions render residential rental agreements void.
¶ 13. You question the validity of this conclusion, and request that the Department of Justice revisit this question.