Updated October 22, 2010
Written by Joseph Tobener and Victor Pyter
California state law and local ordinances protect tenants against landlord harassment. Landlords cannot harass tenants out of their homes. It might be the landlord’s property, but it is the tenant’s home. Some landlords have a tough time understanding this.
Landlord harassment claims can sometimes be difficult to prove. It is important for tenants to be extremely diligent in notating each harassing event. Keep a log with dates and times. If possible, get statements from friends and neighbors, pictures, and recordings. These cases often come down to the tenants’ ability to prove the harassment.
Over the last several decades, courts have expanded tenant protections to prevent harassment. Where a landlord’s harassment has forced a tenant to relocate or caused serious emotional distress, the tenant will have several civil claims against the landlord.
Breach of Contract – Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment
Implied in every residential lease is a covenant of quiet enjoyment, guaranteeing that tenants will be able to peacefully enjoy their homes. Civil Code § 1927. Where a landlord has substantially interfered with a tenant’s peaceful enjoyment of a unit, the tenant can sue for back rent. Through use of expert appraisers, the court will determine if, and by how much, the rental value of the property declined due to the harassment. In Guntert v. City of Stockton, 55 Cal. App. 3d 131 (1976), for example, the court awarded a tenant back rent where the landlord gave several arbitrary eviction notices. Where a tenant is under constant threat of eviction, receives unlawful eviction notices, is verbally or physically threatened by a landlord, and is not benefiting from timely and proper repairs, the tenant can file a breach of contract claim against the landlord. Id. at 139.
If a tenant is forced out of a rent-controlled home because of landlord harassment, the tenant can sue for the cost to replace the rent-controlled home. At least one court has allowed a tenant to recover twenty years worth of increased rent. Where a landlord is motivated by a desire to get a rent-controlled tenant out from under rent control, this rent differential may be trebled.
Local Anti-Harassment Provisions – Rent Control
Some cities in California have their own tenant protections against harassment. For example, the San Francisco Rent Ordinance prevents a landlord from harassing a tenant by 1) failing to perform repairs, 2) threatening to evict, 3) abusing right to access, or 4) threatening the tenant with word or gesture. Where the tenant can prove the harassment, the landlord will be assessed a statutory penalty of $1,000 for each instance of harassment. The tenant can also seek an award of three times emotional distress and out-of-pocket damages. In addition, the award under this cause of action is cumulative, which means a tenant can collect this award and anything awarded under an alternate cause of action. The statute also provides for punitive damages and attorney’s fees.
The Berkeley Municipal Code prohibits landlords from taking any action that would cause a tenant to quit involuntarily or decrease services or raise rent in retaliation for action in support of the Rent Stabilization Program. Any landlord harassment within six months of a tenant’s action is presumed retaliatory. The law provides an award for actual and punitive damages and injunctive relief.
State Anti-Harassment Protections Violations of CA Civil Code §1940.2 and §1942.5
Under state law, tenants can be awarded $2,000 for each harassing incident where a landlord does any of the following: steals, extorts, threatens force, and blocks access. Civil Code § 1940.2.
A state anti-retaliation statute prevents a landlord from harassing a tenant after the tenant has asserted rights under law. Civil Code § 1942.5. Landlords who violate this prohibition are liable for $100-$2,000 per retaliatory act.
Outrageous Landlord Conduct
In cases of particularly outrageous conduct, a tenant may sue a landlord in tort for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The elements of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress are “(1) extreme and outrageous conduct by the defendant with the intention of causing, or reckless disregard of the probability of causing, emotional distress; (2) the plaintiff’s suffering severe or extreme emotional distress; and (3) actual and proximate causation of the emotional distress by the defendant’s outrageous conduct.” Molko v. Holy Spirit Assn., 46 Cal. 3d 1092, 1120 (1988) (emphasis added), quoting Cervantez v. J.C. Penney Co., 24 Cal. 3d 579, 593 (1979). Where a tenant can prove that harassment is intentional or has a reckless disregard, the landlord will be required to pay actual and punitive damages.
In the San Francisco case Richardson v. Pridmore, 217 P.2d 113, a tenant suffered a miscarriage as a result of being intentionally and wrongfully evicted. The landlord in that case broke into the tenants’ apartment while they were gone for a few days, put all their stuff in a basement, and changed their locks before giving the place to new tenants. The jury awarded plaintiffs a sum of $7,250 ($63,910 in 2009 dollars) as compensation.
In Aweeka v. Bonds, 20 Cal. App. 3d 278 (1971), a landlord raised the rent on tenants in retaliation for a repair and deduct against tenants who used rent to repair. The court noted that no physical injury need be present to award damages for emotional distress.
In Spinks v. Equity Residential Briarwood Apartments, 171 Cal. App. 4th 1004 (2009), the court determined that an unlawful eviction may be outrageous despite the “polite and sympathetic” attitudes of a landlord’s agents. A tenant’s particular vulnerability at the time of the eviction, in this case a recent reconstructive surgery of the arm, can make an unlawful eviction outrageous conduct on the part of the landlord.