How Can California Tenants Protect Themselves Against Landlord Retaliation?

Tenant Law Group’s latest monthly newsletter discussed how to request necessary repairs and document attempts to resolve the issues that make rental units uninhabitable. One natural concern that someone might have with following the steps recommended in that article would be landlord retaliation. California’s legislature foresaw that possibility when they drafted Civil Code § 1942.5 to deter landlords and property managers from acting against their tenants instead of fixing their substandard properties.

According to California’s prohibition on landlord retaliation, “If the lessor retaliates against the lessee because of the exercise by the lessee of the lessee’s rights under this chapter or because of the lessee’s complaint to an appropriate agency as to tenantability of a dwelling, and if the lessee of a dwelling is not in default as to the payment of rent, the lessor may not recover possession of a dwelling in any action or proceeding, cause the lessee to quit involuntarily, increase the rent, or decrease any services within 180 days of any of the following: (1) After the date upon which the lessee, in good faith, has given notice pursuant to Section 1942, has provided notice of a suspected bed bug infestation, or has made an oral complaint to the lessor regarding tenantability[,] (2) After the date upon which the lessee, in good faith, has filed a written complaint, or an oral complaint which is registered or otherwise recorded in writing, with an appropriate agency, of which the lessor has notice, for the purpose of obtaining correction of a condition relating to tenantability[,] (3) After the date of an inspection or issuance of a citation, resulting from a complaint described in paragraph (2) of which the lessor did not have notice[,] (4) After the filing of appropriate documents commencing a judicial or arbitration proceeding involving the issue of tenantability[, or](5) After entry of judgment or the signing of an arbitration award, if any, when in the judicial proceeding or arbitration the issue of tenantability is determined adversely to the lessor.” Attempting to force the tenant out of their rental unit, either through the eviction process, or by threats or actual use of force, are among the most commonly feared reactions from a landlord. However as shown above, the landlord attempting to do either of those things, raise rent, or take away services, violates this statute. The 180 days mentioned in the statute are measured from the latest protected action to the date of the landlord’s retaliation. On top of that, “[I]t is unlawful for a lessor to increase rent, decrease services, cause a lessee to quit involuntarily, bring an action to recover possession, or threaten to do any of those acts, for the purpose of retaliating against the lessee because the lessee has lawfully organized or participated in a lessees’ association or an organization advocating lessees’ rights or has lawfully and peaceably exercised any rights under the law.” Lastly, reporting or threatening to report a tenant or someone associated with them to immigration authorities is specifically prohibited by law.

There are some important considerations to keep in mind about this protection. It may only be invoked once every twelve months. Also, the tenant must be able to show through some sort of evidence that the landlord’s actions were motivated by an intent to retaliate against the tenant. This can be demonstrated through evidence like statements the landlord or their agents made or the timing of their actions following some protected behavior.

If the Tenant can show that the landlord was acting in a fraudulent, malicious, or oppressive, way, then they may be entitled to actual costs suffered as well as punitive damages of up to $2,000.00 for each retaliatory act. If the retaliation took the form of an alleged wrongful eviction, the prevailing party could receive their attorney fees as damages. This sword cuts both ways though, as a landlord who wins the case might try to claim they were owed attorney fees instead.

Filing a lawsuit in small claims court to hold a landlord accountable for retaliating against you for reporting uninhabitable conditions may be the right move. But if the conditions are still not being addressed or you would like to know if your case would justify a more serious remedy like a claim of constructive eviction, it might be time to speak to a tenant rights attorney like the ones at Tenant Law Group.