Landlord retaliation is a very serious offense.  Often tenants are in jeopardy of losing their apartments because of retaliation.   Retaliation can put tenants in physical danger.  And, retaliation can force tenants to live with unsafe conditions.  If you are in an unsafe situation because of landlord retaliation, you may need to contact the police, get a restraining order, or sue your landlord.     

What is the legal definition of retaliation?

Any harassing act against a tenant in response to the tenant’s exercise of rights under law can be retaliation.  Civil Code § 1942.5(a).  The California legislature has provided examples of what constitutes retaliation:  decreasing housing services, such as storage, parking, and laundry; forcing a tenant to move out involuntarily; and increasing rent.  Id.   It is also illegal to shutoff utilities in retaliationCivil Code § 789.3(a).  It is also illegal to lock a tenant out, remove doors and windows, or remove a tenant’s possessions.  Civil Code § 789.3(b)(1)&(2). 

Local legislatures, such as San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Santa Monica, have anti-harassment statutes that also define retaliatory acts.  Each of these statutes lists at least a dozen types of harassing behavior, including failing to repair; abusing the right of access; discriminating against the tenant; decreasing housing services; refusing to provide housing services; and attempting to force a tenant to move out.   See, eg. S.F. Rent Ord. § 37.10B.

How to stop retaliation?

There are five things a tenant can do to stop landlord retaliation.

  1. Write a letter.  If a tenant is not in immediate harm, the first thing a tenant should do is to demand in writing that the behavior stop immediately.  In the letter, list the specific acts that the landlord is doing to retaliate.  Demand that the behavior cease immediately and threaten to pursue the claims legally.  Email and mail the letter.  It does not need to be sent certified if you typically communicate with the landlord via email.  You can also mail the letter with the rent to prove receipt.
  2. Call the police.  If you are facing a lockout, utility shutoff, or any other unsafe condition because of retaliation, call the police.  The police are trained to force a landlord to restore a tenant to a unit and restore utilities.  If the police refuse to do this, demand a supervisor.  Ask for a police report and a case number.
  3. Get a restraining order.  A tenant can file for a civil order to restrain a landlord from retaliating against a tenant.  The court has authority to fashion any order it deems appropriate to protect a tenant.  This may include excluding all attempts to enter a unit or preventing a landlord from coming within 100 feet of the tenant.  The California courts publish a free self-help guide for filing for a civil restraining order.
  4. Hire a lawyer to send a back down letter.  A tenant can hire a tenant lawyer to send a letter to threaten a landlord with a lawsuit. 
  5. Sue the landlord for retaliation.  If the retaliation is persistent and serious or forces the tenant to vacate, a tenant can hire a lawyer to file a lawsuit.  These lawsuits are typically done on contingency, meaning the tenant does not pay anything absent a recovery.  Causes of actions that can be filed against a retaliating landlord include breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment, violation of Civil Code section 1942.5, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, unfair business practices, nuisance, trespass, and violations of local rent control laws.  If you have faced persistent or severe harassment, or you have lost your rental home because of retaliation, please contact one of our tenant lawyers at 415-504-2165.   

What money damages can I recover in a retaliation lawsuit against my landlord?

Damages against a landlord for retaliation include return of rent paid, moving costs, out-of-pocket costs, emotional distress, and punitive damages.  Where a tenant lives in a rent-controlled jurisdiction, the tenant may also be entitled to recover the lost economic value of the rent-controlled unit.  The value of the loss of the rent-controlled unit is calculated as follows:  fair market monthly rental value of the lost unit, less the monthly rent paid on the subject unit when forced out, times the number of months the tenant expected to stay in the unit.  Chacon v. Litke, 181 Cal. App. 4th 1234, 1245-1246 (2010).  Rent-control ordinances often allow for triple damages, plus recovery of attorney fees and costs.  If a landlord has locked a tenant out or shutoff utilities, the tenant may also recover $100 per day for every day the tenant is in harm’s way, with a minimum of $250, plus attorney fees and costs.  Civil Code § 789.3(c)&(d).  Under California state law, a tenant may recover up to an additional $2,000 penalty for each retaliatory act. Civil Code § 1942.5.  Where a landlord knows that a tenant is disabled or elderly, these penalties are tripled.  Civil Code § 3345(b).