How Do California’s Statutes of Limitations Impact Tenant Claims and Disputes?
By Aser G. Tolentino Esq.
There are a few special nightmares lawyers have that do not trouble most people. One is realizing they have to take the bar exam again. Fortunately, that at least probably is just that, a nightmare that will never come true unless they want to practice law somewhere new. One nightmare that could more easily become the stuff of a waking nightmare is missing the statute of limitations for a client’s matter. An attorney finds the perfect case, with clear violations of the law and a rock-solid paper trail. There’s just one problem: the statute of limitations ran out the day before. Now, the complaint that would have been worth millions might just be worth hundreds or tens of thousands, or maybe not even the paper it is printed on. Put simply, the statute of limitations is the expiration date on a lawsuit, the time limit by which it must be filed to avoid the court throwing it out for being too stale. This article will explain the basics of why a statute of limitations exists, how its limitations apply to tenant rights cases, and how to avoid ending up with a weaker case through the simple passage of time.
Why Have A Statute of Limitations?
The statute of limitations requires that a person (the “Plaintiff”) who has been wronged by another (the “Defendant”) must file a complaint within a specified period. If the Plaintiff fails to do so, the Defendant can ask the court to throw out the case, because the statute of limitations “has run.” In other words, the Plaintiff missed the deadline to file. This rule has existed since before the founding of the United States, and been carried over to every legal system, state and federal, that has followed for many important reasons.
While everyone tends to agree that a legal system should be fair, another thing it must also be is certain. Certainty and fairness go together to create a system people can turn to when they feel their rights have been violated. This makes a courthouse a better place to resolve the issue than main street at noon, or a dark alley at night. By bringing evidence in front of a neutral judge and jury, the Plaintiff and Defendant can tell their stories and have the court decide. This process relies on giving the people deciding who is right the best information available.
The passage of time makes the court’s job much harder. Witnesses die, people’s memories fade or become more confused. Important evidence is lost, damaged, or destroyed, places change. Ultimately, people move on with their lives, and the events that were so harmful in the moment can become too remote to be sure what happened and who was responsible. Because of these challenges, and the right of any person to move on eventually without fear of something from their distant past being brought up when they can no longer remember who might be able to help them defend against the accusation, the statute of limitations became the standard protection to encourage Plaintiffs to come forward as soon as possible to resolve their disputes
How the Statute of Limitations Works
The statute of limitations works like an expiration date on a possible lawsuit. When a person is harmed in some way, for example, through a car accident, a timer begins to run on each of their legal claims. The duration of the time depends on the type of claim.
Here are the deadlines Tenant Law Group deals with, in order from shortest to longest:
- Six Months: Government Defendants. Someone who needs/wants to sue the government must act quickly. Their lawsuit must be filed within six months of the injury. Speed is even more important since there is usually a requirement that the government entity to be sued should be notified of the possible claim. Anyone who believes that a government employee or agency is responsible for an injury to their person or property should consult an attorney immediately.
- One Year: Ordinances with Punitive-Type Damages. Many local governments have passed local ordinances that call for extra penalties such as treble damages for wrongful evictions in scenarios where Defendants violated the rights of Plaintiffs. If these laws are intended to punish the Defendant for that behavior, a lawsuit must be filed within one year. For example, renters who have been wrongfully evicted in San Francisco, Oakland, and San José (among others) can recover treble damages against their landlords. Additionally, this statute of limitations applies to San Francisco’s Tenant Harassment Ordinance S.F., Cal. Admin. Code § Section 37.10B.
- Two Years: Personal Injury and Breach of Oral Lease. Someone who has been personally injured has two years to file a lawsuit. This includes an actual bodily injury such as a broken arm, some sort of illness like a disease contracted because of someone else’s actions, or mental and emotional distress. Mental and emotional distress can be described as anxiety, stress, depression, or other negative emotional reactions caused by the bad acts described in the lawsuit. Additionally, tenants with an oral rather than a written lease have only two years to bring a claim against their landlord for violations of the oral lease.
- Three Years: Damage to Personal Property or Non-Punitive Statutory Damages. If someone has damaged a person’s property, the time limit for bringing a lawsuit is three years. This can include the cost of repairing damaged property, replacing lost or destroyed property, or reimbursing expenses. Some state laws also provide for additional damages, and these damages must also be claimed within three years of the event that caused them.
- Four Years: Breach of Written Contract and Some Statutes. If someone breaks a contract that has been made in writing, the injured party seeking damages from the breach must file a lawsuit within four years. There are also some state statutes, such as California’s Unfair Competition Law, that have their own statute of limitations. In that specific case, it is four years.
What If I Miss The Deadline?
There are some reasons why a court might not throw out a lawsuit even though the deadline has passed. Sometimes, a wrongful act might not be discovered until much later and only after an investigation determines who is at fault. There are other common reasons why the statute of limitations might not apply:
- Stipulation or Waiver. If the party being sued agrees not to raise the statute of limitations as a defense, or simply fails to bring it up, it never becomes an issue.
- Minority or Disability. Minors cannot act on their own, so the statute of limitations does not begin on their legal claims until they turn eighteen. It is important to note though that a parent or guardian can sign away a child’s right to sue. A person in a coma, or who has a similar disability that prevents them from bringing a claim also will not have the time they are impaired count against them in calculating the statute of limitations. Likewise, being overseas while serving in the armed forces can stop the clock.
- Negotiation or Other Process. If the injured party has reached out to those they believe caused the harm, and the parties are negotiating a settlement, the statute of limitations might be tolled during the negotiation. Along the same lines, if a person makes a complaint to the California Civil Rights Department under the Fair Employment and Housing Act or follows a similar procedure created by a statute for settling disputes outside of court, the statute of limitations is also tolled.
- COVID-19. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, California’s courts were closed for most cases. Some statutes of limitations were effectively paused for about half a year. Essentially, the clock was paused on all claims beginning on April 6, 2020, and ending on October 1, 2020. This is hopefully a one-time event that will never have to be repeated.
The Statute in Action
Jim lives in an apartment covered by San Francisco’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance. His landlord Lizzie ignores his requests for repairs in which he identifies as leaking windows, a broken water pipe, and two large holes in the wall through which he has seen rats coming into and out of his unit. He provides pictures. After several months, he reports that he can see mold growing on the walls and he has difficulty breathing. After he is bitten by a rat that causes an infection, he writes Lizzie to tell her he believes he has been forced to move out due to unsafe and unhealthy conditions. (This is known as a “constructive eviction”).
To ensure he can claim a right to triple damages under the San Francisco Rent Ordinance, Jim must file his complaint with the court within one year of moving out. Jim must file within two years of moving out if he wants damages for the rat bite and mold exposure. He would also need to file within two years for a refund of rent paid if his rental agreement to rent the apartment was not in writing.
Jim must file within three years of moving out if he wants to be compensated for the value of the furniture he had to throw out or other personal property damaged by rats and mold. If Lizzie violated another state law, by abusing her right to enter his apartment under Civil Code section 1940.2, for example, this would also need to be done within three years.
Finally, if Jim had a written rental agreement or wanted to claim that Lizzie violated the Unfair Competition law, he would need to file a complaint within four years.
A best practice for attorneys is to assume the shortest statute of limitations possible and file all lawsuits within one year unless a would-be defendant is a governmental entity, in which case the lawsuit should be filed before the six-month time limit expires. In all cases, it is important to collect as much information and evidence about the case as quickly as possible so that no details about possible claims or important deadlines are missed.
How Tenant Law Group Deals With the Statute of Limitations
Tenant Law Group, like all law firms looking out for their client’s interests, has set up procedures and safeguards to ensure that a statute of limitations defense never becomes an issue. When potential clients speak with TLG’s intake team, damages are classified, and deadlines are immediately tracked. As a general rule, lawsuits are filed well in advance of any possible statute of limitations dates.
The statute of limitations is an important protection that ensures the smooth functioning of the courts and the fairness of their judgments. It also allows people to feel safe from claims from the distant past being raised against them when they have lost all the evidence to defend themselves. While the need to act quickly to preserve all claims is important, it usually will not take away all hope of compensation when wrongdoing can be proven.
If you are a tenant or know of a tenant who has experienced an illegal eviction, harassment, or uninhabitable conditions, time is of the essence. Speak with a tenant rights attorney immediately to learn more about the protections to which you are entitled, and how to hold landlords accountable.