Circumstances Where Small Claims Court is a Tenant’s Best Option

While it’s not unusual for a dispute to arise between a landlord and tenant, most disagreements can be resolved by an email, phone call, or in person conversation.  In certain extreme cases of egregious landlord conduct, however, a tenant’s only hope for a resolution may be by way of formal legal proceedings. We generally recommend that any tenant on the receiving end of such egregious conduct contact a tenant rights attorney before going to court.  All too often, tenants who sue their landlords while still residing in their rental unit find themselves subject to retaliatory unlawful detainer (eviction) lawsuits. Tenants in these situations often find themselves fighting two separate legal battles simultaneously—one for damages and the other to stay in their home.  For this reason, it’s generally in the tenant’s best interest to wait until after moving out to initiate legal proceedings of any kind. 

In some instances, small claims court may actually be the best option, particularly when it comes to security deposit disputes.  In California, an individual may not recover more than $10,000.00 in small claims court, and a small claims litigant may not file a claim for over $2,500.00 more than twice per year.  Find below three types of landlord-tenant disputes that may be appropriate for resolution in small claims court. 

Scenario 1: Illegal Retention of Security Deposit After Tenant Moves Out 

Failure to return a security deposit is among the most common reasons why Bay Area tenants take their landlords to small claims court.  In California, landlords have twenty-one days to return a tenant’s security deposit, minus any legally approved deductions. Itemized deductions must be in writing and include a clear explanation, such as payment of unpaid rent or the cost of repairing the rental unit beyond ordinary wear and tear.  If your landlord does not return your deposit or withholds all or part of it by falsely stating that you violated your lease terms, you may wish to file suit. 

Scenario 2: Illegal Deductions From Security Deposit After Tenant Moves Out 

Under California law, your landlord may make deductions from your security deposit for “any purpose.”  However, the four reasons set forth in California’s security deposit law include the following: 

  1. Unpaid rent. 
  2. The cost of repairing property damage caused by the tenant and/or the tenant’s guests beyond ordinary wear and tear. 
  3. The cost of making the rental unit as clean as it was when the tenant first moved in. 
  4. The cost of remedying any lease violations to restore, replace, or return personal property or appurtenances, exclusive of ordinary wear and tear, if the lease permits the security deposit to be applied for this purpose. 

If your landlord makes a deduction not supported by the law, such as upgrades to the rental unit or costs of repairs for ordinary wear and tear, going to small claims court may be the best option. 

Scenario 3: Failure to Reimburse for Repairs After Tenant Moves Out 

If your landlord refuses or fails to carry out repairs necessary to your health and safety, such as restoring running water or replacing a door that came off its hinges, the law allows you to hire a professional to perform these repairs and recover the money you paid out of pocket if the landlord has not reimbursed you by the time you move out.  [Note: We never recommend that tenants deduct such costs from rent without the landlord’s explicit permission, as doing so will almost certainly invite the landlord to serve a Three Day Notice to Pay or Quit. If rent is not timely paid, the landlord may then file an unlawful detainer (eviction) lawsuit.] 

Illegal Evictions and Other Egregious Activity 

Some unscrupulous landlords try to evict tenants in just cause eviction jurisdictions such as San Francisco or Oakland without a valid legal reason, i.e., without “just cause.”  To compel you to leave, a landlord may allow the rental unit to become uninhabitable, intentionally interfere with the tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment, or engage in a fraudulent owner-move-in eviction.  If this happens and you incur losses—including the loss of your rental unit—as a result, seek the advice of an experienced tenant rights attorney before taking any action. These cases are often more complicated and require the assistance of an attorney to reach an equitable resolution. 

Contact a Bay Area Tenant Rights Attorney 

These are only a few of the reasons a tenant might wish to pursue legal claims against a landlord.  A Bay Area tenant rights attorney can advise whether you have a valid claim and what your legal recourse may be.  If you need help with a situation involving your landlord, contact Tenant Law Group for a complimentary case evaluation.