When Home is Threatened: A Humanistic Approach to Understanding Eviction Laws in California

When discussing tenant rights, something that often comes up is the threat of a wrongful, fraudulent, self-help, or constructive eviction. But what does all of that mean? Basically, eviction is the process a landlord uses to force a tenant out and retake actual possession of a rental unit, regardless of whether it is a single-family home, apartment, or something else. Importantly, there is only one legal way to do it in California. 

The eviction process, known as an unlawful detainer, is laid out in California’s Code of Civil Procedure. If a landlord wants to end a tenancy and force a tenant out of their home, they begin by serving a notice terminating the tenancy. If there are no special requirements, the landlord has to give enough notice for the proposed date of the tenancy’s end to satisfy the California Civil Code. However, if the city or county in which the unit is located has a just cause for eviction requirement that applies, or it is covered by the 2019 Tenant Protection Act, the notice must also provide a reason that is included in the allowable just causes for eviction. If the reason is based on something the tenant did, the landlord usually has to give them a chance to fix the problem: things like not paying the rent, creating a nuisance, or failing to sign a lease under the same terms. 

Once the notice has expired, without the tenant moving out or completing the required action (paying rent, stopping the alleged nuisance, etc.) the landlord may file an unlawful detainer complaint in court and serve that on the tenant. Typically, this is done in person by having someone give the complaint and the summons from the court to an occupant of the home or by posting it on the door. Whoever serves the complaint files a statement with the court describing how and, most importantly when the complaint was served. Once the complaint is served, the tenant has five court days to file a legal document called an answer. If they do not file an answer, they can and usually will lose by default. Other documents can be filed, but an eviction defense attorney should be consulted before attempting most of them. Once the answer is filed, the case will be set for trial, where the landlord will attempt to show that the notice was valid and the tenant should have given up their rental unit. If the court agrees, then they will issue a judgment in favor of the landlord that will give the sheriff authority to remove the tenant and change the locks. 

Because the only thing that these cases are supposed to decide is who has a ride to possess the unit, they can be scheduled and completed very quickly: within one to two months. However, this means that every part of the procedure on the landlord’s part should be perfect. If anything about the notice is defective, it could lead to them having to drop their case and start all over again. It can however also be a powerful tool in retaliating against a tenant for complaining about conditions in the unit or harassment from the landlord and their employees. Local ordinances protecting tenants from harassment and state laws prohibiting landlord retaliation create special penalties for abusing the eviction process.

Aside from abusing the legal process, landlords may take matters into their own hands. If they change the locks without a court order, turn off utilities, take or throw away a tenant’s property, or threaten them with harm if they do not leave, they are engaging in a self-help eviction. This is always illegal and can lead to additional damages being awarded to a tenant in a lawsuit. Where some just causes require a statement from the landlord, that they are taking an apartment building off the rental market or moving into a home to use as their primary residence, for example, and it turns out they did not do so; they have engaged in a fraudulent Ellis Act or owner move-in eviction and may be liable for additional damages as well. Lastly, and perhaps most common in our office’s line of work, if a landlord receives reasonable notice of conditions that make it impossible for the tenant to remain in their unit and they do not reasonably address the problem, the tenant can claim the landlord has constructively evicted them, creating responsibility for the resulting costs and additional damages. 

If you believe you were the victim of a wrongful eviction, you should reach out to a tenant attorney to make sure your rights are respected.