I have an unusual perspective as I specialize in landlord tenant law while 50% of my clients are tenants and 50% are landlords. I have both prosecuted and defended numerous FED actions in the small claims division of the Johnson County District Court and handled FEDs on appeal in the District Court.
I am not convinced that our current system is the best possible way of providing housing, but until practical and workable alternatives are put in place, I will continue to do my best to see that everyone is treated fairly and the current system works as best as it can.
On this page I attempt to give a practical explanation of how FEDs actually function in Iowa, from the perspective of my experience in Johnson County and on appeal.
Introduction to Iowa FEDs & Evictions
Unpaid Rent FEDs & Evictions
Holdover FEDs & Evictions
For Cause FEDs & Evictions - Lease and IURLTA Violations and Clear & Present Danger
Complex FEDs & Evictions
In Iowa no landlord can legally use self help to remove a tenant, whether tenancy is agricultural, commercial or residential, including mobile homes. Instead all evictions must go through court. The legal action for eviction in Iowa is commonly known as an "FED" from the statute, Iowa Code section 648, titled Forcible Entry and Detainer.
An FED is normally done in small claims court and handled by magistrates. The FED needs to be filed in the county where the rental property is located. An FED is very fast for a court action and is only available for a very limited number of situations. The only relief that is granted in an FED is possession and court costs, no money damages are awarded. Normally the plaintiff, person starting the case, in a FED is the landlord, but in Iowa management companies are allowed to represent the owner in FEDs and other small claims cases. There are some rare situations where a tenant can use an FED to regain possesion or the primary tenant does an FED against a subtenant.
The most typical FED is for unpaid rent, but it is not unusual to have FEDs when a tenant will not leave after the tenancy has been terminated, known as a holdover, or FEDs when tenants have violated the lease. There are a variety of other more unusual situations where FEDs are used, for example if the tenant or their guests have committed a serious crime or where a guest, often a boyfriend, girlfriend or adult child of the owner, refuses to leave. If the police refuse to get involved in a long term trespassing situation, then an FED is used.
Because an FED is so fast and because the tenant loses possession, in many cases their home, magistrates can be very strict about notice and service: the landlord must follow the applicable statutes exactly. On the other hand, if the landlord gives the correct notice and follows the filing deadlines, there is very little discretion for the court. In particular the court has no legal right to grant additional time before the eviction takes place, though some magistrates will pressure landlords to allow more time. It is possible, if both the landlord and tenant agree, to settle an FED. Typical settlements are: (1) that the tenant pays an agreed amount of money and the landlord agrees to dismiss the case; (2) that the tenant agrees to move out by a certain date and the landlord agrees not to have the sheriff evict the tenant. Settlement is often a good idea for both landlords and tenants. The court encourages settlement and may assist with implementing an agreement if the parties both agree to settle.
The FED should be filed against: (1) everyone who has a right to possession as well as (2) everyone actually in possession, but not against someone not in possession if that person does not have a right to possession. Generally this means that all tenants on the lease should be sued in the FED. However, if a tenant has subleased and no longer has a right to possession, they should not be part of the FED. On the other hand, if guests have taken up residence or if the landlord is aware that other people, not on the lease, are actually living in the unit, they should be part of the FED. If their names are not known they can be sued as "unknown resident".
Many landlords represent themselves in FEDs, but a significant number of landlords are represented by lawyers. Tenants, if they qualify, can be represented by Iowa Legal Aid attorneys. As a practical matter there are almost no defenses to an unpaid rent FED, but there are many technical errors that can cause the FED to be dismissed. Legal Aid is very good at spotting technical errors, but magistrates are very observant as well, which results in dismissal of the FED. If this happens tenants should be aware that it is usually only a temporary victory. If the FED is dismissed for problems with notice, service or other technical reasons, the landlord typically files a new FED for the next month rent is unpaid or redoes the problematic notice or service. Thus while a tenant can sometimes get a particular FED dismissed, if the landlord is persistent, the tenant will eventually be evicted.
While it is possible to appeal an FED, generally, in order to stop the eviction proceedings a bond must be posted. In addition, appeal is not a "do over" the reviewing court simply reviews the FED proceedings to see if there was a violation of law. For landlords it is faster and more practical, if an FED is dismissed, to simply correct the problem and refile or, with an unpaid rent FED, just file again the next month. Tenants, particularly those who are represented by attorneys, may use appeal as a delaying tactic, but again, a persistent landlord will almost invariably be successful.
If the court grants judgment for the landlord, by statute the writ of possession issues within 3 days. Some counties require the landlord to request issuance of the writ, as of Summer 2023 Johnson County simply isses the writ. The landlord then takes the order of judgment and writ of possession to the sheriff and makes an appointment for the eviction. The Johnson County Sheriff will notify the tenant of the time and date of the eviction. At the time and date arranged, the landlord needs to provide a crew to remove any belongings and a sheriff's deputy will supervise, making sure the tenants leave the premises if they are still there. The landlord's crew will remove any belongings left by the tenant by taking them to the curb. The landlord has no responsibility for these removed belongings.
Having an FED action granted or even filed against a tenant can have significant negative effects if the tenant wants to rent again. Landlords generally prefer to rent to tenants that have not been previously evicted. There is no way to "seal" an FED case or remove an FED judgment, as this is a civil judgment and matter of public record. While it is not possible for all tenants, if you find yourself in a position where you cannot pay the rent, it might be better to let the landlord know and to move out, rather than having an FED filed against you. You would still owe the rent as damages until a new tenant was found, but you would not have an eviction on your record.
As noted the most frequent type of FED is for unpaid rent. From a landlord perspective if you have a choice of grounds to evict, the unpaid rent FED is the easiest. Keep in mind that it is possible in one FED action to have multiple grounds. One mistake that landlords make is letting rent be unpaid for months at a time, then rushing around try to immediately evict the tenant. The wiser course is to be human and work with your tenants, but to not let rent be unpaid for an extended period of time.
Tenants should also not make the mistake of hiding from the landlord if they are unable to pay rent. Keep the lines of communication open, don't make promises you can't keep and it may well be that if you can't pay the rent the best option is to leave. Tenants should also realize that once the landlord serves a 3 day notice of unpaid rent or especially when the FED is filed, that their time is almost up, now is when you should be making arrangements to move and get your possessions out of the unit as the court cannot grant additional time at the FED hearing.
Finally if tenants feel the landlord is violating the lease or IURLTA or they are unhappy with the landlord, they should definitely NOT stop paying rent. The landlord will simply file an FED. An FED is not the forum to be litigating claims of landlord misconduct as the default is to grant the FED. In addition, tenant complaints about the landlord can be proffered in an FED as an excuse to avoid paying rent. Instead, keep paying rent and sue the landlord for money damages in small claims court. In this setting tenant complaints are taken much more seriously by the court. Alternatively tenants can serve a 7 day notice under the IURLTA, though this has its own problems.
The first step in an unpaid rent FED is serving a 3 day notice to cure or terminate the tenancy. This is sometimes wrongly called a "notice to quit" however, a notice to quit is not used in an unpaid rent FED. Instead this is a notice to the tenant or tenants that if they do not pay the rent within the specified time that the landlord can terminate their tenancy. If the tenancy is terminated the landlord can file for an FED and evict them.
There is no legally required form for a 3 day notice, but it should inform the tenant that if rent is unpaid within a specified time that their tenancy will be terminated. In Johnson County, a 3 day notice cannot ask for more than the current month's rent. Best practice to avoid confusion and problems is to not ask for utilities or late fees at all, just the current month's rent, but if the lease provides for monthly utilities or late fees, then the current month's utilities or late fees are could be potentially be demanded in a Johnson County notice. The 3 day notice can be served once rent is due. The default legal time for paying rent is the first of the month, but the lease can provide for a grace period, in which case the rent is due after the grace period.
Service of the 3 day notice must be done very carefully. The landlord can give the tenant a copy of the 3 day notice and this is good service if the tenant then signs an acknowledgement of service. The landlord can have the sheriff or a private process server effect personal service. Finally the landlord can post a copy of the notice on the entry door of the unit and then send a copy to the tenant at the unit by regular mail and a second copy by certified mail.
Service by acknowledgement or by personal service is effective when the tenant is actually served. Posting and mailing adds an additional four days, so service is effective 7 days after mailing. If the tenant pays the rent owed, within 3 days for acknowledgement or by personal service or 7 days for posting and mailing, the landlord cannot file an FED. If the tenant doesn't pay within the time for service, then the landlord can file the FED after the time for service elapses. I always add at least an additional 2 days, so there is no question that service and filing were timely.
If as noted, the tenant fails to pay the rent in full within the time for service, the landlord can then file the FED petition. One complex issue is the legal effects of partial or untimely payment of rent. If the tenant makes a partial payment of the current month's before the 3 day notice is served, then the landlord can demand full payment in the 3 day notice. As noted if the tenant pays the full amount due (which in Johnson County can only be the current month's rent and current month's lease charges or current late fees) within the time specified in the notice, the landlord cannot file for an FED. If the tenant tries to pay after the time specified in the notice, it is up to the landlord whether or not they want to accept the payment. However, landlords should be aware that the court will often treat any payment, full or partial, after the time specified in the 3 day notice as barring the FED.
The tenant will almost always hope that any payment, even a small partial payment will forestall eviction. Landlords, on the other hand, will want to accept a partial owed payment, but may still wish to evict. If the landlord is going to accept payment from the tenant, but still wants to evict they need to have a written agreement with the tenant or give the tenant a written receipt, that clearly explains that despite the partial payment, the landlord is still going to evict. Absent a such written agreement or receipt if the landlord accepts payment, the landlord should not try to evict. If the tenant forces payment on the landlord after the specified date in the notice and the landlord wishes to evict, the landlord needs to immediately refund the payment.
The landlord files the FED petition in the small claims division of the county where the rental unit is located. While the court is supposed to set the hearings within 8 days, the landlord can ask that the hearing be set within 15 days. In Johnson County and other counties throughout Iowa, the court is so busy that is unable to set hearings so quickly. In any case I always ask for the 15 days, because it is important to have enough time to do service properly. Current cost of a petition as of Summer 2023 is $95.
The landlord must then attempt to have the sheriff or a private process server personally serve the petition and notice of hearing on the tenant. Personal service must be made at least 3 days before the hearing. If personal service is attempted but not successful, then posting and mailing can be used. Mailing as usual adds an additional four days, so posting and mailing of the petition and notice of hearing must be done at least 7 days before the hearing. In Johnson County, because of the very limited time available, the court permits landlords to have the sheriff attempt service and to post and mail both on the same day.
Like a 3 day notice, the petition and notice of hearing can be posted and mailed by posting a copy on the entry door of the unit and mailing a copy by regular mail to the tenant at the unit and a second copy by certified mail to the tenant at the unit. If the landlord uses posting and mailing for either the 3 day notice or the petition, then an affidavit of service needs to be filed. The court in Johnson County also likes to see the certified mail receipts and pictures of the posted notice and petition on the door of the unit. These should be converted to pdf and efiled with the court.
At the hearing, the court will check to see that the notices are correct, the service was done properly and at the correct time. These are the most frequent causes of dismissal of FEDs and if the notice asks for multiple months' rent or the FED was filed too early, for example, the FED will be dismissed. Notice and service must be perfect! On the other hand, if the notices and service are correct, then the FED is almost automatic. The landlord simply states that rent is unpaid and the FED is granted, unless the tenant can provide evidence of payment, like a cancelled check or bank statement. Inability of the tenant to pay, health or job problems, are not defenses.
As noted if the landlord and tenant agree many different outcomes are possible, but if the landlord does not agree, there is no legal way for the court to give the tenant additional time. The wiser landlord, however, works with the tenant and it is almost always better for the tenant to move out on their own, if they do so as agreed.
Most landlords can handle an unpaid rent FED, if they are properly trained and have the correct notice and careful instructions about service and timing. Tenants, if possible, should get Legal Aid to assist as they can often find technical errors made by landlords and even attorneys. Tenants should recognize however, that defeating an FED on technical grounds is just a temporary victory and use this extra time to find a new place and move, as noted a persistent landlord will eventually be able to get the tenant evicted, if they continue not to pay rent.
The other type of FED that landlords can typically handle themselves is a holdover FED, though this is more complex in some ways than a unpaid rent FED. A holdover tenant is one who stays in possession after their tenancy terminates. This can come about if, for example, they have a lease for a set term, typically a year, for example "this tenancy begins August 1, 2023 and terminates July 31, 2023." If there are no provisions in the lease for renewal and no provisions that the tenancy converts to a month to month, just a set term, then the tenancy terminates at the date set in the lease.
Many leases, however, state that when the term ends the lease converts to a month to month tenancy. Alternatively, if the tenant stays in possession and continues to pay rent, typically by the month, and the rent is accepted by the landlord, this also creates a month to month tenancy. A month to month tenancy is perpetual and automatically renews each month unless terminated by the landlord or tenant. A month to month tenancy in Iowa can be terminated by picking a month and then giving written notice of termination at least 30 days before the last day of the chosen month. This notice should be personally served for the landlord by a process server or the sheriff, served by the landlord and with an acknowledgement of service signed by the tenant or posted and mailed with one copy by regular mail and one copy by certified mail. As always posting and mailing adds four days to the service so a posted and mailed notice of termination needs to be served 34 days before the last day of the chosen moth. If a tenant wishes to terminate a month to month tenancy they should provide written notice, which can include email.
If the notice to terminate is timely served and the tenant fails to move out on the last day of the chosen month, then the landlord should serve a notice to quit, again by acknowledged service, personal service or posting and mailing. If the tenant still does not move out, then 3 days after service by acknowledgement or personal service or 7 days after posting and mailing, the landlord can file an FED petition. As always I invariably add 2 days to all service deadlines to avoid mistakes or miscounting.
The service of the FED petition and notice of hearing is the same as an unpaid rent FED. At the hearing, there is no defense to a termination of a month to month and neither a landlord nor a tenant terminating a month to month needs to give "good cause" though both would be wise to have it. The eviction is handled similarly.
The next type of FEDs can be characterized as "for cause" FEDs. These include violations of the lease and of the IURLTA, the Iowa Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act. This can include violations of the quiet enjoyment of other tenants, damage to the unit, non-tenants living in the unit. Tenants have a reciprocal right to terminate if the unit is uninhabitable or if the landlord violates the Landlord Tenant Act or lease.
If the tenant violates the lease or the Landlord Tenant Act then the landlord needs to serve a 7 day notice to cure or terminate. Again this can be served by acknowledgement, personal service or posting and mailing, and as usual posting and mailing adds four days. If the tenant continues the violation the tenancy terminates. If the tenant stops violating the lease or Landlord Tenant Act within the specified time in the notice, then the landlord cannot terminate the tenancy. If they repeat the same violation within six months, the landlord can terminate with a 7 day notice but without an opportunity to cure.
If the tenancy terminates then the landlord serves a 3 day notice to quit as noted under holdover FEDs and then files a petition as noted under unpaid rent FEDs.
A clear and present danger FED can be used if the tenant or their guest commits certain criminal violations, basically assault, firearm or drug offenses on the premises. A special notice including a notice to quit must be served, and there is no opportunity to cure.
The practical problem with both lease/Landlord Tenant Act violation FEDs and clear and present danger FEDs is that the landlord must prove their case in court at the FED hearing. For an unpaid rent FED the landlord simply can state the rent is unpaid and for the termination of a month to month tenancy or other holdover situations they can provide the notice of termination or lease. But the "for cause" FEDs require a much higher level of proof. Landlords sometimes appear to believe that simply making very serious allegations is sufficient to win an FED, but lacking sufficient legal evidence they will lose the FED.
Landlords need to be prepared to provide witnesses who will testify to their personal knowledge and observation of all relevant facts in court. "We've had a lot of complaints" is not sufficient. Photographs of damage are essential. With regard to clear and present danger FEDs the required proof is even higher. If the tenant or guest was arrested, an arresting officer or witness to the criminal offense should testify, a police report by itself is likely not to be accepted. As a practical matter, unless a landlord is ready to question witnesses on direct and cross examination and understands how to move evidence into the record, they should get a lawyer to represent in these types of cases. It might be more practical to terminate a month to month or do an unpaid rent FED rather than a for cause FED.
There are even more types of FEDs beyond these already mentioned and even an unpaid rent FED can present complex legal issues. For example, FEDs are used for situations where someone initially had permission to stay, but now refuses to leave. In addition, FEDs involving mobile homes can be very complex. In these situations, both landlords and tenants should consult a lawyer as early in the process as possible, as soon as you are aware of the problem, but before taking any action.
For more information on how to hire Christopher Warnock for landlord tenant advice, settlement or litigation representation or to advise and assist with FEDs go to the Contact Page
For more information go to the Contact Page