Guide to Suing a Landlord in California Small Claims

Camila Lopez - California - November 20, 2022

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Lawsuits against landlords are one of the most common types of lawsuits we see filed in California small claims courts. In this guide, we go over common types of small claims lawsuits against landlords, step by step guide on how to sue, and what to expect at the small claims hearing.

Quick Facts on Suing a Landlord in California Small Claims

The maximum amount you can sue for: 

$10,000

Most common types of lawsuits:

Security deposits, property damage, or unsafe or unsanitary conditions. 

How long does the process take:

Most California courts are scheduling hearings around 30-75 days from when a lawsuit is filed. Virtual hearings are also available in some counties. 

Costs

$0-$75 court fees. $0-$125 serving costs. If you are low-income, the court will waive your court fees and serving costs.

Lawyers: 

You cannot have a lawyer represent you at the small claims hearing. Your landlord can’t either as lawyers are not allowed to represent the parties in small claims hearings. 

Common Types of California Small Claims Lawsuits Against Landlords

We often receive the question, can I sue my landlord in California small claims? The answer is yes as long as the dispute is for $10,000 or less. 

Here are some examples of small claims lawsuits against landlords:

Security Deposits

Review our Overview on California Security Deposit Law.


Examples: 

Landlord didn’t return your security deposit. 

Landlord acted in bad faith when returning your security deposit. 

Landlord deducted for more than wear and tear.  

Property Damage

Your landlord damaged your property. 

As a result of your landlord’s negligence, your property was damaged.

Unsafe or Unsanitary Conditions

Your landlord won’t help you get rid of roaches, mice, rats, mold, etc. 

Your landlord won’t make the necessary repairs to your unit. 

For example, under California Civil Code Sec. 1941, landlords who wish to rent out buildings to tenants have to make sure the conditions of the building are fit for tenancy. If landlords neglect to make necessary repairs as provided under the laws of their state you as a tenant may have a claim against your landlord in small claims court for negligence. 

Illegal Eviction or Lockout

Your landlord changed the locks without following the correct procedure to evict you.

What to do Before Suing your Landlord in California Small Claims

Reach Out to Your Landlord by Email or Text

The first thing to do when a problem arises is to communicate with your landlord. If you are still living in the unit, you have an ongoing relationship with your landlord, and maintaining that relationship is important. If you already moved out, communication is still important as you may be able to resolve your dispute with your landlord with clear communication. 

Make sure to keep your communications in writing as you should be aiming to keep a trail of evidence. 

Send a Demand Letter to Your Landlord 

If your landlord doesn’t respond to emails or texts, consider sending them a demand letter. A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests.For example, if your landlord does not return your security deposit, you can write them a demand letter asking them to return your deposit. 

Here are some demand templates:

Why is sending a demand letter important: 

  • If you eventually decide on suing your landlord in a California small claims court, you are required to first request your money or property back before you can file the lawsuit. While you can request your money or property back orally, it is suggested you do so in writing in the form of a demand letter so that there is no doubt you have met the requirement. 

  • Letters are oftentimes taken more seriously than demands for payment via text message or phone.  

What to include in your demand letter: 

  • How much money your landlord owes you. For example, if your landlord threw out your couch worth $1,500, you would write that they owe you $1,500 for throwing out your couch. 

  • Why you believe your landlord owes you money. For example, you know your landlord is wrong for keeping your security deposit since they never sent you an itemized statement for the deductions as is required by California law. 

  • Your contact information (preferably an email so that you can keep communications in writing).

  • Where to send payment if your landlord decides to resolve the dispute. 

  • Consider providing your landlord an option to pay you using a payment plan.

  • Consider including an option to go to mediation (there are many organizations in California that provide free or low-cost mediation and most courts also have free mediation available but many times you have to file a lawsuit in order to obtain access). More on mediation can be found below.

  • Give them a deadline for when you expect a response (usually around 14 days to account for mailing time). 

  • Let them know that if they don't respond, you intend to sue because you didn't feel like they left you with an alternative.

Save All Evidence

You want to make sure to save all relevant evidence related to the issue you are having with your landlord.  

Here are some examples of evidence you may have: 

  • Any pictures or videos of the unit.  

  • Any contracts such as a lease or rental agreement.

  • Any receipts or invoices from any repairs or cleaning you paid for.  

  • Written conversations you have had with your landlord (text messages, emails, demand letter, etc).

  • Remember, if you are trying to convince the judge that you should get bad faith damages in the amount of 2x the amount of your security deposit, you need to have evidence to prove that your landlord acted in bad faith. California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1950.5(l). Evidence of bad faith is usually in the form of text messages or emails that show the landlord behaved terribly regarding the return of your security deposit.

When to Contact a Lawyer

If you think your case against your landlord may be worth more than $10,000, you may want to reach out to a landlord-tenant lawyer in your area to see how much they think your lawsuit is worth. Many landlord-tenant lawyers provide free consultations to determine if they can take your lawsuit. In many types of lawsuits involving landlords and tenants, a lawyer may take your case on a "contingency" which means you only pay if you win.

Common types of lawsuits landlord-tenant attorneys are interested in:

  • exposure to mold or other toxins

  • landlord harassment

  • illegal lockouts

Common types of lawsuits landlord-tenant attorneys tend to not be interested in: 

  • Cases worth $10,000 or less. 

  • Security deposit lawsuits. 

Common reasons a lawyer may not take your case: 

  • The economics don’t make sense for a lawyer to help you. Lawyers are looking for cases that are worth several thousand dollars as they will need to spend a significant amount of time to help you. For example, most lawyers, won’t take security deposit cases since most cases are worth $10,000 or less. 

  • You don’t have a good case. You may be wrong under the laws of California. 

  • You are not calling the right type of lawyer. You will want to speak to a tenant’s rights lawyer and not a lawyer that normally represents landlords although some lawyers will represent both tenants and landlords. 

Steps to Suing a Landlord in California Small Claims

People Clerk will assist you through each step of the California Small Claims process against your landlord so that you don’t miss any steps. We will also do most of the legwork for you like filing, serving, and preparing your evidence for the hearing. If you would like to do it yourself, make sure to save this guide so that you can come back to each step. 

Step 1: Prepare "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" (Form SC-100)

You will want to download the California small claims lawsuit form called "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" (Form SC-100)

Locate your landlord: 

  • Distinguish your landlord from the property management company. Many people confuse the property management company with their landlord as they are used to dealing with a property management company. Your landlord is usually the one who is ultimately responsible for the acts property management company. However, if you have claims against the property management company then you would also include them in the lawsuit. If you have doubts, you can include both your landlord and the property management company as it will ultimately be up to the judge to determine who is responsible. 

  • How to find who your landlord is. Normally, you can find your landlord’s name on the first page of your lease. Your landlord may be a company or they may be an individual.

  • Call the County Tax Assessor. If you cannot find your landlord's name on the lease, you can call the county tax assessor's office where the rented unit is located and ask who owns the property. In California, each county tax assessor has information on who owns a property. They may also be able to give you a current address for them as you will need this address to find where to serve your landlord.

  • If your landlord is a Corporation or LLC, you can run a search on the California Secretary of State's website. If you live in a large apartment complex, your landlord very likely is registered as a corporation or LLC. You will need to identify the name of the corporation or LLC. In this article, we cover this process in detail. It is important to identify the agent for service of process (someone selected by the corporation or LLC to receive legal documents on its behalf) as this is the person who will be served.

Decide how much you are going to sue for: 

  • The maximum amount you can sue your landlord for in California small claims is $10,000.

  • If you are owed more than $10,000, you can still sue in small claims, but you agree to waive any additional amount you are owed.

Why would someone agree to waive any amount over $10,000 that they are owed:

  • Suing your landlord in regular court is more expensive, time-consuming, and complicated.

  • You cannot hire an attorney to represent you in small claims court making it cheaper.

  • Hearings in small claims court are scheduled 30-75 days after the lawsuit is filed.

Write why you are suing: 

  • You want to be clear to the judge why you are suing your landlord. Some judges will read the lawsuit before the hearing, others will not. 

  • For example, “I am suing my landlord because they didn’t return my $2,500 security deposit and have failed to respond to my emails, texts, and letters.”

Step 2: File the small claims lawsuit. 

Each California Small Claims Court has a different procedure for filing. Here are the ways small claims lawsuits can be filed in California:

  • In Person.

  • By Mail.

  • By Fax.

  • By Electronic Filing (e-filing). 

People Clerk files small claims lawsuits in all 58 California Counties. 

Step 3: Serve your landlord

Once you file your California small claims court lawsuit, the next step is to notify your landlord that they have been sued. This is called "service of process" (also known as "service"). You cannot serve your own lawsuit. You must serve your landlord at least 15-20 days before the small claims court hearing (sometimes you are required to serve at least 30 days before the hearing).  There are several ways you can serve your landlord including by having a friend serve, hiring a process server, or hiring the sheriff. 

If your landlord is an individual

You will need to serve your landlord directly by giving them a copy of the lawsuit or giving the lawsuit to someone who lives with your landlord or works with your landlord. 

If your landlord is a corporation or LLC

Remember, you will be serving their "agent for service of process" as listed on the California Secretary of State's website.

We can help you with serving the small claims lawsuit.

What to Expect at the Small Claims Court Hearing

Once you file your small claims lawsuit, you will get a hearing date scheduled anywhere between 30-75 days later. During this time, your landlord may call you to try and settle the case. If you come to an agreement, you can close your small claims lawsuit.

To prepare for yoursmall claims court hearing:  

  • Research the law. If you are unsure about what laws relate to your lawsuit, consult an attorney or conduct your own research about the law (a quick Google search goes a long way). Remember, you don't need to necessarily cite a specific law (unless you are basing your legal theories on a very unknown subject area), you just need to be able to prove that you are "right" and your landlord is "wrong." Sometimes this can be as simple as proving that your landlord caused damage to property that belongs to you. If you are suing about a security deposit, review our guide to California Security Deposit law

  • Prepare your evidence. Pictures, receipts, etc. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. All your evidence should be geared towards showing the judge why you should win. Remember, it is not good to show up to court without any documents or receipts. The judge wants to be able to base their decision on the evidence you bring to court showing exactly how much you are owed and why you are owed money. Keep in mind that People Clerk will help you organize your evidence in a judge friendly evidence packet!

  • Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask you why you are suing your landlord and how you calculated the amount you are owed. You want to make sure you start with a broad statement like this: "Your honor, I am suing my landlord in small claims court today because they failed to return by $3,000 security deposit. Then go into the details.

  • Get your receipts for costs ready. For example, your filing fees and any process server costs. Make sure to let the judge know that you would like to be reimbursed for these costs. It will ultimately be up to the judge to decide what they would like to reimburse you for. 

  • Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies of your evidence (one for you, one for the judge, one for your landlord).

Are attorneys allowed in small claims court?

  • Attorneys are not allowed to represent you or your landlord at the initial hearing. 

  • If your landlord loses the small claims lawsuit and appeals (meaning they lost and want the judge to decide again) then attorneys are allowed to represent the parties at the appeal hearing. Appeals are rare in California small claims. 

Mediation as an option for resolving your dispute

What is mediation?

Mediation is a meeting between you, your landlord, and a neutral 3rd party called the mediator. A mediator is not going to decide who should win but rather help you and your landlord come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. Mediation tends to be very successful between landlords and tenants as you have a longstanding relationship. If you reach an agreement during mediation, you will be able to close your lawsuit.

How can I try to mediate the dispute with my landlord?

In California, there are many organizations that provide free or low-cost mediation. Run a google search for "mediation near me" and you will find one of the many organizations providing mediation. Many times they are run by volunteer mediators.

Many California small claims courts also have free mediation available. Each county runs their small claims mediation a bit differently so reach out to us for more information on your court. You can either obtain free mediation on your hearing date or you may be able to request mediation before your hearing date.

File a Complaint Against Your Landlord

Lastly, you may also be able to file a complaint against your landlord with a government agency. However, most government agencies only take complaints regarding harassment or discrimination. For example, the California Civil Rights Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is responsible for enforcing California’s fair housing laws which apply to landlords, property management companies, real estate agents, builders, mortgage lenders, etc. The DFEH also allows tenants to file a complaint against a landlord for harassment. 

Learn more about California small claims.

Author

Camila Lopez

Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ People Clerk. Camila is an attorney, consumer advocate, and certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.

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