In this second post on California residential Landlord-Tenant law, I’m going to talk about the techniques some residential landlords go through to force tenants to move. To see my first post, click here. As I explained previously, there is no license or test to become a residential landlord. Many people just put an ad on Craigslist and things generally go fine… until a problem results.
In general, for a landlord to get rid of a tenant, the landlord has to evict them through a court process called an Unlawful Detainer (UD) proceeding. A UD is not difficult and is, in many ways, a cookie-cutter or formulaic process. However, like any court process, it takes time and money that some landlords do not want to spend. One technique that sometimes occurs is the landlord resorts to brute force. For example:
- the landlord hires individuals to forcibly remove the tenant,
- the landlord changes the locks while the tenant is out and refuses to provide the new key, and/or
- the landlord turns off utilities in the hope that the tenant will simply move rather than live with no electricity or water.
I would imagine a landlord could think these would be simple and cheap alternatives to a court proceeding, but unfortunately, tactics like these are all highly illegal. The California law in question is California Civil Code section 789.3(a) and 789.3(b).
Civil code section 789.3(a) provides:
A landlord shall not with intent to terminate the occupancy under any lease or other tenancy or estate at will, however created, of property used by a tenant as his residence willfully cause, directly or indirectly, the interruption or termination of any utility service furnished the tenant, including, but not limited to, water, heat, light, electricity, gas, telephone, elevator, or refrigeration, whether or not the utility service is under the control of the landlord.
Section 789(a) is pretty broad. For example, it prevents the landlord from not only directly terminating utilities, but indirectly as well. The “shall not with intent to terminate” part I bolded and underlined, though, is important because it can be a limitation. The mere fact the utilities were terminated is not enough. The landlord must have done so with the intention of forcing the tenant to move.
Section 789(b) goes over prohibitions on landlord (1) changing the locks to prevent the tenant from accessing the property, (2) removing doors or windows on the property, and (3) removing the tenant’s personal property from the premises without consent, court order, or as otherwise provided by law.
The most interesting part of Section 789 to me, however, is the penalty portion in Section 789(c) and 789(d). Unlike in most instances, California law actually specifies what fines and other penalties a landlord who, for instance, turns off his tenant’s utilities must pay. Under Section 789(c), an offending landlord must pay (1) the tenant’s actual damages, and (2) a fine of $100 per day of the violation, with a minimum amount of $250.
Section 789(d) is also quite powerful because it states that a tenant who sues for violations of section 789 (e.g. landlord changes locks, turns off utilities, etc) and wins is entitled to attorney’s fees and costs as well.
In my limited experience, I personally wish more tenants knew of section 789 generally, but specifically section 789(d). Many tenants have the intuitive sense that what their landlord is doing is wrong, but assume incorrectly that they can’t afford a lawyer so they have no choice but to accept what their landlord is doing.
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