Unlawful Detainer (Eviction) Lawsuits
Although Tenant Law Group does not currently represent tenants in unlawful detainer (eviction) lawsuits, our goal is to help as many tenants possible. To that end, we have added this page to our website as a resource for tenants dealing with an eviction lawsuit. Additionally, we are happy to refer tenants to attorneys, firms, and organizations that offer this service. In addition to these FAQs, Tenant Law Group also offers fee-based Attorney Consultations, during which you can speak to a tenant rights attorney who can advise you on the best strategy possible in light of your circumstances.
Many California tenants, particularly during this unprecedented health and housing crisis, face the threat of illegal and fraudulent evictions by landlords seeking to maximize their profits. If you have already been displaced from your rental unit based on questionable landlord motives, please visit our Get Started Page to schedule a complimentary case evaluation.
We may be able to help you recovery money damages for your losses at no upfront cost to you.
- 1. What is an unlawful detainer lawsuit?
- 2. I just received a document entitled “Three-Day-Notice to Pay or Quit,” "Three-Day-Notice to Cure or Quit,” or "Three-Day-Notice to Perform Covenant or Quit. Am I now in an eviction lawsuit?
- 3. I just got served with a notice terminating tenancy. Am I now in an eviction lawsuit?
- 4. I just received an unlawful detainer complaint. What should I do first?
- 5. I just received an unlawful detainer complaint. How long do I have to respond?
- 6. Can I represent myself in an unlawful detainer lawsuit?
- 7. Can I countersue the landlord in an unlawful detainer lawsuit?
- 8. If I represent myself in an unlawful detainer lawsuit, what should I know?
- 9. Where can I find a lawyer to represent me in an unlawful detainer lawsuit?
- 10. Can you represent me after I am evicted?
- 11. What are the proper, legal options a landlord may deliver (“serve”) an unlawful detainer complaint to a tenant?
- 12. Are other resources available online to assist me?
- What is an unlawful detainer lawsuit?
In California, the only way a landlord can remove a tenant from a rental property is by going to a court and getting a judgment signed by a judge or judicial clerk that says the tenant is guilty of “unlawful detainer.” Unlawful detainer is a legal term which means that the person who possesses real property does not have a right to have it: that it belongs to someone else and it should be returned. This could be because, for example, the person who is illegally possessing the property has not paid for it, has misused or damaged it, or was supposed to give it back and failed to do so. This unlawful detainer process is the only legal way to evict, or remove, a tenant from a rental unit. It is important to note that there are other types of evictions, called “constructive eviction” and “self-help eviction,” which are not allowed by law and are thus considered, “wrongful evictions.”
Unlawful detainer lawsuits are different from other lawsuits in a few especially important ways. The most important is that unlawful detainer cases have their own court calendar and move much more quickly through the court system than most civil cases. Another significant difference is that the unlawful detainer case is based entirely on one question: is the tenant named as the defendant, the person staying on the property, doing so without a right to be there at the time the case is heard? That is the only thing that matters and the only reason you can be found guilty of unlawful detainer.
- I just received a document entitled “Three-Day-Notice to Pay or Quit,” “Three-Day-Notice to Cure or Quit,” or “Three-Day-Notice to Perform Covenant or Quit. Am I now in an eviction lawsuit?
No, delivery of this notice to a renter is one of the steps leading up to the filing of an unlawful detainer case. If, on the third day after you received the notice (excluding weekdays and court holidays), then the landlord may file a complaint for unlawful detainer.
- I just got served with a notice terminating tenancy. Am I now in an eviction lawsuit?
No, the notice terminating tenancy informs you when your tenancy will end. On the day after the last day of your tenancy, if your landlord will not accept your rent, then you have overstayed, and the landlord may file an unlawful detainer complaint.
- I just received an unlawful detainer complaint. What should I do first?
Stay calm. Read over the complaint carefully to learn what exactly the landlord is claiming you did that justifies evicting you from your home. Once you understand that, you may wish to reach out to one of the organizations listed below or your county’s local bar association to request a referral for an attorney who can help you. Whether or not you hire an attorney, you should begin preparing an “answer,” the document you file in court to respond to an unlawful detainer complaint. An electronic copy can be downloaded here from the website of the Judicial Council of California, which has a self-help section that walks you through the process.
- I just received an unlawful detainer complaint. How long do I have to respond?
It depends on where you live and how you received the unlawful detainer papers. If you were served in person, you have five days, excluding weekdays and court holidays, to file an answer with the court. If you live in San Francisco or were served through certified mail, you have fifteen days to file an answer. Filing before the deadline is extremely important, because failing to do so would mean you lose by default.
- Can I represent myself in an unlawful detainer lawsuit?
Yes. However, the complexity of the process, the documents required, and the very short timelines involved can be overwhelming for someone unfamiliar with the process. We recommend you hire a lawyer if that is possible. In San Francisco, a renter facing eviction can hire an eviction defense lawyer at no cost. (See https://evictiondefense.org/services/right-to-counsel/ for more information.)
- Can I countersue the landlord in an unlawful detainer lawsuit?
No. The only issue the Court will decide in an unlawful detainer lawsuit is whether the tenant is wrongfully preventing the landlord from properly reclaiming their property. If the tenant can demonstrate that the property was uninhabitable, or that the landlord was evicting the tenant for an illegal reason like discriminating against a member of a marginalized class or retaliating against someone who raised a concern about uninhabitable conditions, then those arguments are only relevant as to whether the tenant’s breach was due to those conditions. Damages for those kinds of activities would be pursued in a different lawsuit.
- If I represent myself in an unlawful detainer lawsuit, what should I know?
A crucial point that cannot be repeated enough is that an answer must be filed in time. Once that is done, the tenant should prepare to present their case first in negotiating with the landlord (the Court will likely schedule a conference to encourage the parties to enter an out-of-court settlement) and, if negotiations are unsuccessful, then in arguing before a judge or jury. Something else to remember is that the tenant may receive “discovery” in some cases. Discovery is the process by which the landlord and tenant gather information about the other before trial. Discovery responses should be prepared and reviewed with the help of an attorney.
If you are having trouble finding a new place to live within the time necessary to file an answer, keep in mind that you will not be guilty of unlawful detainer if you no longer live in the unit by the time the case goes before the court. Therefore, up until the date of trial, you can move out, notify the landlord and the court by filing a notice with the court (often entitled “Notice of Relinquishment of Possession”). In most cases, the landlord will simply dismiss the lawsuit. While landlords do have the option to convert the unlawful detainer lawsuit into a civil lawsuit (aka a lawsuit with the goal of recovering money from the tenant), in most cases their goal was to force the tenant to move out. Once that happens, they usually dismiss the lawsuit.
Rather than simply walking away before trial, you may leave after the landlord offers a settlement that prevents the case from going to trial. If you agree to a settlement even though the landlord was responsible for nuisances, forced you to live in uninhabitable conditions, or otherwise illegally evicted you, do not sign a “waiver” or “release” of rights. Signing a waiver or release may permanently prevent you from recovering money damages.
- Where can I find a lawyer to represent me in an unlawful detainer lawsuit?
- San Francisco: Eviction Defense Collaborative
- Oakland: Eviction Defense Center
- Los Angeles: Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles
- Tenants Together is a statewide coalition of local tenant organizations dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of California tenants to safe, decent, and affordable housing. A list of member organizations throughout California is available here.
- Google “lawyer referral service [Your County]” for the phone number or website of the lawyer referral service by your county bar association. You can ask for a referral to a lawyer or organization to represent you in your unlawful detainer lawsuit.
- Can you represent me after I am evicted?
Possibly. An eviction conducted properly and for one of the reasons the law provides cannot be the basis for a lawsuit. However, if the eviction was the result of retaliation, discrimination, an attempt to avoid performing repairs, or some other activity the law punishes, our firm may be able to help you recover money from your landlord for your losses. If you are unsure, please call us or complete the form on our Get Started Page to schedule a free case evaluation.
- What are the proper, legal options a landlord may deliver (“serve”) an unlawful detainer complaint to a tenant?
According to California’s Code of Civil Procedure § 1162(a)(1)–(3), service may be carried out:
- By delivering a copy to the tenant personally.
- If the tenant is absent from both the place of residence and the tenant’s usual place of business, by leaving a copy with some person of suitable age and discretion at either place and sending a copy through the mail addressed to the tenant’s place of residence.
- If the tenant’s place of residence and business cannot be ascertained, or a person of suitable age or discretion there cannot be found, then by affixing a copy in a conspicuous place on the rental property (usually the front door), and also delivering a copy to a person there residing, if such person can be found; and also sending a copy through the mail addressed to the tenant at the rental property. Service upon a subtenant may be made in the same manner.
- Are other resources available online to assist me?
Yes. California’s Self-Help Guide for Eviction Cases in California is available here.