IT IS ILLEGAL FOR LANDLORDS TO HARASS THEIR TENANTS

Landlord harassment is illegal. California state law and local city ordinances protect tenants against harassment. Whether physical or verbal, all landlord harassment has the same goal—to force the tenant to move out.

Harassment is when a landlord uses persistent aggressive methods, fraud, coercion, or intimidation to get a tenant to do what the landlord wants. Harassment is meant to disrupt the tenant’s legal right to quiet enjoyment of their unit in order to force the tenant to move or to force the tenant to refrain from pursuing any potential legal rights they may have against the landlord.

Why would a landlord harass a tenant?

In rent-controlled jurisdictions, such as San Francisco, Berkeley, Richmond, Moiuntain View, Alameda, and Oakland, landlords are highly motived to get long-term tenants to move out in order to raise the rent to market rate. Many landlords rely on the assumption that tenants do not know their legal right. Harassment of the tenant is pursued in order to avoid costly legal fees and the hassle of a legal eviction and, most importantly, the landlord typically has no actual cause to evict the tenant other than their bad faith motivation to substantially raise the rent.

How can a tenant prove harassment?

Landlord harassment claims can sometimes be difficult to prove. These cases often come down to a tenant’s ability to prove the harassment. It is important for tenants to be extremely diligent in notating each harassing event. Tenants should maintain a log with dates and times. If possible, they should also get statements from friends and neighbors, and take pictures and recordings. If a tenant feels that they are in physical danger, they should call the police and can also pursue a restraining order against their landlord.

What are the harassment laws in the State of California?

It is illegal for a landlord to induce a tenant to leave a unit by the use of “force, willful threats, or menacing conduct”; by threatening to disclose the citizenship status of the tenant or the tenant’s guests; by entering the tenant’s unit in substantial violation of the law; and to take, deprive, or remove the tenant’s property from the unit without consent. Cal. Civ. Code § 1940.2.
Landlords who are found to have harassed their tenants are liable for punitive damages of up to $2,000.00 for each violation of the law. Id. Tenants do not have to be actually evicted or constructively evicted to be awarded damages for harassment. Id.

Additionally, the state’s anti-retaliation statute prevents a landlord from harassing a tenant after the tenant has asserted rights under law. Cal. Civ. Code § 1942.5. Landlords who violate this prohibition are liable for actual damages, attorney’s fees, and punitive damages of up to $2,000 per retaliatory act. Id.

What are the harassment laws in the City of San Francisco?

The San Francisco Rent Ordinance protects tenants from landlord harassment. The ordinance is more expansive than the California harassment statute, and it includes a catch-all provision to cover anything that is not explicitly enumerated. S.F. Cal., Rent Ordinance § 37.10B. In San Francisco, landlords are expressly prohibited from doing the following:

  • Interrupt, terminate, or fail to provide housing services required by contract or by state, county or local housing, health or safety laws;Fail to perform repairs and maintenance required by contract or by state, county or local housing, health or safety laws;
  • Fail to exercise due diligence in completing repairs and maintenance once undertaken or fail to follow appropriate industry repair, containment or remediation protocols designed to minimize exposure to noise, dust, lead, paint, mold, asbestos, or other building materials with potentially harmful health impacts;
  • Abuse the landlord’s right of access into a rental housing unit as that right is provided by law;
  • Influence or attempt to influence a tenant to vacate a rental housing unit through fraud, intimidation or coercion;
  • Attempt to coerce the tenant to vacate with offer(s) of payments to vacate that are accompanied with threats or intimidation;
  • Threaten the tenant, by word or gesture, with physical harm;
  • Violate any law that prohibits discrimination based on actual or perceived race, gender, sexual preference, sexual orientation, ethnic background, nationality, place of birth, immigration or citizenship status, religion, age, parenthood, marriage, pregnancy, disability, AIDS or occupancy by a minor child;
  • Interfere with a tenant’s right to quiet use and enjoyment of a rental housing unit as that right is defined by California law;
  • Refuse to accept or acknowledge receipt of a tenant’s lawful rent payment;
  • Refuse to cash a rent check for over 30 days;
  • Interfere with a tenant’s right to privacy;
  • Request information that violates a tenant’s right to privacy, including but not limited to residence or citizenship status or social security number;
  • Other repeated acts or omissions of such significance as to substantially interfere with or disturb the comfort, repose, peace or quiet of any person lawfully entitled to occupancy of such dwelling unit and that cause, are likely to cause, or are intended to cause any person lawfully entitled to occupancy of a dwelling unit to vacate such dwelling unit or to surrender or waive any rights in relation to such occupancy. Id.

Tenants who are harassed by their landlord can file a civil lawsuit against their landlord for damages and for an injunction to stop the behavior. Additionally, a landlord convicted for violation of this section of the Rent Ordinance will be subject to criminal penalties. Id.

Where the tenant can prove harassment, the landlord will be assessed a statutory penalty of $1,000.00 for each instance of harassment. Id. The tenant can also seek an award of three times (treble damages) their emotional distress and out-of-pocket damages. Id. And, punitive damages and attorney fees are provided for under the ordinance. Id.

What are the harassment laws in the City of Oakland?

The Oakland Rent Ordinance’s prohibition against landlord harassment is similar to San Francisco’s ordinance. Oakland, Cal., Mun. Code § 8.22.600. Under Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance (TPO), landlords shall not do the following:

  • Interrupt, terminate, or fail to provide housing services required by contract or by State, County or municipal housing, health or safety laws, or threaten to do so;
  • Fail to perform repairs and maintenance required by contract or by State, County or municipal housing, health or safety laws, or threaten to do so;
  • Fail to exercise due diligence in completing repairs and maintenance once undertaken or fail to follow appropriate industry repair, containment or remediation protocols designed to minimize exposure to noise, dust, lead paint, mold, asbestos, or other building materials with potentially harmful health impacts;
  • Abuse the owner’s right of access into a rental housing unit as that right is provided by law;
  • Remove from the rental unit personal property, furnishings, or any other items without the prior written consent of the tenant;
  • Influence or attempt to influence a tenant to vacate a rental unit through fraud, intimidation or coercion, which shall include threatening to report a tenant to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, though that prohibition shall not be construed as preventing communication with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement regarding an alleged violation;
  • Offer payments to a tenant to vacate more than once in six (6) months, after the Tenant has notified the owner in writing the tenant does not desire to receive further offers of payments to vacate;
  • Attempt to coerce a tenant to vacate with offer(s) of payments to vacate that are accompanied with threats or intimidation. This shall not include settlement offers made in good faith and not accompanied with threats or intimidation in pending eviction actions;
  • Threaten the tenant, by word or gesture, with physical harm;
  • Substantially and directly interfere with a tenant’s right to quiet use and enjoyment of a rental housing unit as that right is defined by California law;
  • Refuse to accept or acknowledge receipt of a tenant’s lawful rent payment, except as such refusal may be permitted by state law after a notice to quit has been served on the Tenant and the time period for performance pursuant to the notice has expired;
  • Refuse to cash a rent check for over thirty (30) days unless a written receipt for payment has been provided to the tenant;
  • Interfere with a tenant’s right to privacy;
  • Request information that violates a tenant’s right to privacy, including but not limited to residence or citizenship status or social security number, except as required by law or, in the case of a social security number, for the purpose of obtaining information for the qualifications for a tenancy, or not release such information except as required or authorized by law;
  • Other repeated acts or omissions of such significance as to substantially interfere with or disturb the comfort, repose, peace or quiet of any person lawfully entitled to occupancy of such dwelling unit and that cause, are likely to cause, or are intended to cause any person lawfully entitled to occupancy of a dwelling unit to vacate such dwelling unit or to surrender or waive any rights in relation to such occupancy;
  • Removing a housing service for the purpose of causing the tenant to vacate the Rental Unit. For example, taking away a parking space knowing that a Tenant cannot find alternative parking and must move. Oakland, Cal., Mun. Code § 8.22.640.

Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance also prohibits retaliation by the landlord against the tenant for exercising their rights under the law and allows tenants to bring retaliation claims against the landlord in civil court. Id.

It is important to note that under the Oakland TPO, tenants must first comply with a notice requirement before they can pursue a civil remedy in court against their landlord if the tenant alleges a violation of 1, 2, 3, 10, 11, 12, or 13 listed above. Oakland, Cal., Mun. Code § 8.22.650. Tenants alleging a violation of those subsections must notify the property owner or their agent of the problem prior to filing a lawsuit. Id. And, in the case of 1, 2, 3, 11, or 12 listed above, the tenant must give fifteen (15) days from the notification for the owner to correct the issue. Id.

Similar to San Francisco’s ordinance, Oakland provides for substantial money damages against landlords found liable for harassment. Oakland, Cal., Mun. Code § 8.22.670. Attorney fees and costs, punitive damages, treble damages, and injunctive relief are all available under the ordinance. Id.

What are the harassment laws in the City of Berkeley?

The City of Berkeley also has a Tenant Protection Ordinance (TPO) that protects tenants from landlord harassment and retaliation. Berkeley, Cal., Mun. Code § 13.79.060. The ordinance prohibits the landlord from doing any of the following in bad faith:

  • Influence, or attempt to influence a tenant to vacate a Rental Unit through fraud or intimidation, or through unauthorized physical acts;
  • Threaten by use of fraud, intimidation, or coercion to terminate a tenancy, to recover possession of a rental Unit, or to evict a tenant from a rental unit. Such threats shall include threatening to report any tenant, occupant, or guest of any tenant or occupant, to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement;
  • Reduce, interrupt, or withhold any services or amenities provided to the tenant pursuant to the rental agreement, custom, or law. Such services include, but are not limited to, provision of the quiet use and enjoyment of the rental unit;
  • Interfere with any tenant’s rights of privacy. Unlawful interference with a tenant’s right to privacy shall include, but is not limited to, requesting information regarding citizenship or residency status or social security number of any tenant or member of the tenant’s family or household, occupant, or guest of any tenant, except for the purpose of obtaining information for the qualifications for a tenancy prior to the inception of a tenancy. Unlawful interference with the right to privacy also includes releasing any confidential information regarding any person described in this subdivision, except as required by law;
  • Abuse the limited right of access into a rental unit as established and limited by Civil Code 1954;
  • Abuse, exploit, discriminate, or take advantage of, any actual or perceived disability, trait or characteristic of any tenant, including, but not limited to, the Tenant’s participation in any section 8, housing choice voucher, or other subsidized housing program;
  • Fail to perform any repairs in a timely and professional manner that minimizes inconvenience to the tenant; or fail to exercise due diligence in completing repairs and maintenance once undertaken; or fail to follow appropriate industry standards to or protocols designed to minimize exposure to noise, dust, lead paint, asbestos, other building materials with potentially harmful health impacts;
  • Threaten to not perform repairs and maintenance required by contract, custom, or law, or threaten to do so;
  • Fail to accept or acknowledge receipt of a tenant’s rent, or to promptly deposit a tenant’s rent payment, or to promptly provide a receipt to a tenant upon request, except as such refusal may be permitted by state law after a notice to quit has been served and the time period for performance pursuant to the notice has expired;
  • Offer payments to a tenant to vacate without providing written notice to the tenant of his or her rights under this Chapter, using the form prescribed by City staff; however this shall not prohibit offers made in pending unlawful detainer actions;
  • Engage any tenant in any form of human trafficking as defined by California Penal Code section 236.1, as a condition of that tenant’s continued occupancy of a Rental Unit. Id.

Like the Oakland TPO discussed earlier, before a tenant can bring a claim in civil court for violation of certain subsections listed above, the tenant must first comply with the notice requirement to the property owner or the owner’s agent. Id.

Landlords found to have violated the TPO can be liable for actual damages, attorney fees, treble damages, injunction, and an award of civil penalties in the sum of between $1,000 and $10,000 for each violation. Plus, the landlord may be held liable for an additional penalty of up to $5,000 for each violation against any person who is disabled or elderly (age sixty-five or over). Id.

What are the claims and damages in a tenant lawsuit against their landlord for harassment?

As discussed above, depending on which jurisdiction the tenant resides, tenants can recover a myriad of damages in a lawsuit against their landlord for harassment. Some of the damages include actual damages, treble damages, punitive damages, attorney fees and costs, civil penalties that vary in amount depending on the city, and in some jurisdictions, additional awards for disabled or elderly tenants are available.

Aside from the harassment claim, other claims a tenant may pursue against the landlord that will yield additional money damages are for breach of contract and covenant of quite enjoyment, wrongful or constructive eviction, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Breach of Contract and 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. Cal. Civ. 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.

Constructive Eviction: 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 (i.e. tripled).

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress: 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.

When should a tenant contact a lawyer?

Tenants who have a landlord that is using harassment in an attempt to force them to move should contact Tobener Ravenscroft LLP to speak with an experienced attorney.