Rent it Right
Without seeing the stipulation, it's impossible to know whether you were truly giving up ownership rights or simply restating the law (that belongings left behind are deemed abandoned).
Let's look at each possibility. If the stipulation means that you've given up any recapture rights, then whether this decision seals your fate depends on your state's law concerning landlords' treatment of abandoned property.
May the parties waive the procedure described in the statute or is it the type of right (like your right to a fit and habitable home) that the law will not allow landlords and tenants to modify? If the former, then your agreement in the stipulation to give up any ownership rights will stick, and you're out of luck.
On the other hand, if state law will not uphold a tenant's waiver of the process whereby he can recover his belongings, then the stipulation has no effect. That's a long shot, however, because the judge in the eviction lawsuit had to review the stipulation.
Presumably, a judge would not approve of a settlement in which you agreed to waive a right that cannot legally be waived.
Now what about the other possibility -- that the stipulation is merely your acknowledgment that anything left behind is deemed "abandoned"? If that's how the stipulation should be understood, then must your landlord handle and return the items according to state law? Again, it depends on your state's law.
Some states, such as California, provide for a very orderly process for the handling, storage and return of tenants' belongings, but it's not mandatory. It simply gives landlords a process that will shield them from liability if a tenant later tries to sue over discarded items.
Landlords may choose not to follow the system (a classic "safe harbor") and may instead take their chances if tenants later sue to recover property or for damages due to the property's destruction.
If your state has set up a system like this, your landlord was free to handle your leftovers as he saw fit; but if your state requires landlords to handle property in a certain way, your landlord has possibly violated the law, and you may have a case against him.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord's Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant's Legal Guide." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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