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What to Do With Documents and Records Found in Abandoned or Delinquent Self-Storage Units

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By Murphy Klasing

It’s not uncommon for a self-storage operator to discover documents or records in a delinquent or abandoned unit—items such as birth certificates, diplomas, legal or medical records, and other papers that have no financial worth but still have value under the law or to the former tenant. So what do you do when you discover such paperwork? Let's take a look at some solutions.

Protect Yourself

First, be cautious when renting to a commercial customer who intends to store records in his unit. Some facility rental agreements state that storage units aren’t suitable for the storage of data, legal or medical documents, or other records. If your lease contains this language, don't rent to someone who plans to store such items. If the lease is silent with regard to records, just understand going in that your lien on the property isn’t worth much and can present a sticky liability situation.

Reach Out to Authorities

Medical records contain sensitive personal information such as Social Security numbers, dates of birth and, of course, medical information. Fortunately, the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act doesn’t require a self-storage operator to safeguard such documents from distribution or publication. The tenant is responsible for properly disposing of such records.

Nevertheless, consider a scenario in which medical files are found in an abandoned or delinquent unit. Upon preparing for auction, you discover it’s full of sensitive documents. You know no one will bid on them, so you decide to throw them away. Someone passes by your dumpster, retrieves multiple files, and then uses the information to open bank accounts and credit cards. He also reads a file he finds humorous and posts it on Facebook. Now you have people suing you for exposing their information to the public.

Fortunately, the law is on the side of the self-storage operator, as the records aren’t your responsibility. That doesn't mean, however, that a judge will throw out the case or you won't face a tough (i.e., expensive) legal battle.

If you find medical records, call your state’s medical board and ask for help. They may request that you send them the records or even shred them. They may also call the delinquent tenant and put pressure on him to pay his storage bill and move out. If that doesn't work, do your best to protect the sensitive information in the files. Always think like a jury. Ask yourself, "If a disinterested person heard about what I did with these records, would he think my actions were justified?"

Take Reasonable Action

One of my clients recently auctioned a storage unit rented by an attorney. The lawyer had been suspended by the state bar, and the space contained the entire contents of his office, including all of his business records.

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