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California Landlord-Tenant: Lockout of Tenant (CA Civil Code section 789.3)

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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:

  1. the landlord hires individuals to forcibly remove the tenant,
  2. the landlord changes the locks while the tenant is out and refuses to provide the new key, and/or
  3. 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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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

4 Comments

  1. My landlord lock me out of the laundry room. We had an signed agreement I
    could use the laundry room once a week. After she served me a Thirty Day Notice.
    She put an lock on the door.
    She would lock the bathroom door for about three week.
    After the last time I call the Sheriff and they explain It could be open due to child proof
    on door.
    An I entitle to 789 penalty violation.?
    My Court date is 8/3/17.

    Reply
  2. What can I do I took over a apartment that my cousin was rsnfing zhe was moving to LA I thought that the owner all about it .until onday he put a pay or quit notice on the door about subleasing when I brought to my cousins attention she locked me n my kids out plus I paid the rent already..what can I do leadley

    Reply
  3. You’re so pro tenant. Well my fiancée is a good landlord. Unfortunately he is stuck with the tenant from hell. She stopped paying rent 3 MONTHS AGO!!! And stated she has no intention of paying! He cano not get this monster out of his house! The days of the slum lord are OVER!!! Laws should be changed so that good landlords can get squatters out of his home, without him, TGE landlord, having to jump through hoops and he at the mercy of a squatter!!! California laws are WRONG! They protect the criminal squatter! While treating the landlord like the criminal!!! I feel so bad for my fiancée. And he is beside himself. This is so sad!

    Reply
    • Me too! Tenant from hell hasnt paid on 6 months. Unlawful detainer dismissed because tenant said he paid 500 and I said his rent was 600. He also picked a fight with our roomate and now has a restraining order on him. He came 5 days after another 3 day quit and took some stuff then said he would be back in the morning to get the rest. We have 3 witnesses and officers report .We locked him out 3 days later , now 11 days later he sends a text that hes not leaving. Well hes locked out and NOT getting in. Gonna box his stuff today and send a pic of it on my porch. Sue me, go ahead loser, he owes me 3k and the police are tired of him. Civil.matter now, he will get in over my dead body. He left so many C” notes to the last tenants, arguments, and cops here probably 6 times in past few months..So over it!! Ugh

      Reply

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