Invasion of Privacy in California: Landlord-Tenant Law

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In California, a landlord can access a tenant’s unit under certain circumstances. If the landlord enters a tenant’s unit under other circumstances, the landlord may be seen as invading the tenant’s property and right to privacy. A landlord who wants to enter a tenant’s unit should notify the tenant of her intent to enter the unit for a lawful, valid reason. The landlord should provide notice in writing 24 hours before the visit.

Valid Reasons for Landlord Entry

The circumstances under which a landlord may enter a tenant’s unit are provided in California Civil Code Section 1954. They include:

  • In case of emergency.
  • To make necessary or agreed upon repairs, decorations, alterations or improvements; supply necessary or agreed services; show the unit to prospective or actual purchasers, mortgagees, tenants, workers or contractors; or to make an inspection, such as for repair or cleaning.
  • When the tenant has abandoned or surrendered the premises.
  • Pursuant to a court order. 

Except in cases of emergency or when a tenant has abandoned or surrendered the premises, a landlord cannot enter the unit during other than normal business hours. Normal business hours means Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. A tenant must accommodate a reasonable request to show a property to a prospective buyer or renter during daytime hours on the weekends. A landlord does not need to provide notice of entry if the tenant is present and consents to the entry at the time the landlord comes to the unit.

Details About Notice

A landlord’s notice of her intent to enter should contain the date, approximate time of entry and purpose of the entry. The landlord may personally deliver the notice to the tenant. She may also leave it with someone of suitable age and discretion at the unit or leave it on, near or under the usual entry door of the unit where a reasonable person would discover the notice. In addition, the landlord can mail the notice to the tenant at least six days before the intended entry.

Abusing Right of Access

A landlord cannot abuse the right of access or use it to harass the tenant. The landlord should use his communication with the tenant to understand what the tenant would consider harassment. For example, if a tenant told the landlord that he takes a shower every morning at 9 a.m., the landlord should refrain from attempting to enter the apartment at this time to make minor repairs. A tenant who unreasonably refuses entry to a landlord for a valid, lawful reason may be at risk of being evicted for just cause.

Covenant for Quiet Enjoyment

A landlord may not interfere with a tenant’s “quiet possession” of the rental unit. This includes the tenant’s right to privacy, peace and quiet. When a tenant alleges that a landlord has interfered with this right, the court will examine the facts of the case. The court will weigh the landlord’s right of entry against the tenant’s right of privacy and quiet possession.

Penalties for Harassment

According to state law, a landlord who harasses a tenant is liable for up to $2,000 for each violation. Certain California cities have passed additional anti-harassment ordinances. San Francisco allows a tenant who has suffered harassment to file a petition with the city’s rent board for a reduction in rent. The city also provides that a landlord convicted of tenant harassment will be found guilty of a misdemeanor and punished with a fine of up to $1,000, incarceration of up to six months, or both. Further, the landlord may be enjoined, or blocked, from harassing a tenant. When a tenant has suffered mental or emotional distress, and the landlord acted in knowing violation or reckless disregard of the San Francisco Administrative Code, the court may award reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, and treble damages, which are three times the actual damages.

Oakland’s tenant protection ordinance (TPO) is similar to San Francisco’s. It also punishes a landlord with a fine of up to $1,000 for each offense, may block the landlord’s harassment and allows a court to award treble damages for a landlord who acts in knowing violation or reckless disregard of the TPO.

Filing a Restraining Order

A tenant can file for a restraining order against her landlord. A restraining order limits when and how the landlord can contact the tenant. Typically, a tenant would file a civil harassment restraining order. This type of restraining order covers abuse, threats of abuse, stalking and serious harassment by a person with whom the victim does not have a close relationship. A tenant who has suffered harassment should consider consulting an attorney to protect herself from retaliation, including eviction. She may want to sue the landlord for trespass, breach of contract for violation of the lease terms, invasion of privacy, breach of quiet enjoyment and harassment.

Civil Vs. Criminal Wrongs

When a landlord harasses a tenant, the landlord’s conduct may constitute invasion of privacy under the California Penal Code. If the act is a criminal offense, the landlord is subject to prosecution in criminal court. A landlord is prohibited from peeking through a hole or opening into a space in which a tenant has a reasonable expectation of privacy or using an instrument, such as a camera or cell phone, with the intent to invade the tenant's privacy. A landlord may not use a concealed device to record a tenant’s body or undergarments or use a hidden camera to record a tenant in a private area. The penalty for invasion of privacy is a period of incarceration up to six months and a fine of up to $1,000. A second violation of the statute can incur a fine of up to $2,000 and a jail sentence of up to a year.

A landlord may not engage in eavesdropping, using a recording device to eavesdrop on a tenant’s confidential communication. The landlord may not engage in wiretapping, using technology to access the tenant’s telephone line to listen to her calls. California requires the consent of all parties to make an audio recording of a telephone call. It is a criminal offense for a landlord to make an unauthorized audio recording of a tenant.

A landlord’s wrongful acts can be the subject of a civil lawsuit. A tenant can sue a landlord in civil court for money damages resulting from the landlord’s invasion of her privacy. A landlord is liable for physical invasion of privacy if he knowingly enters onto the land or airspace above the land of a tenant without permission or commits a trespass to record the tenant engaging in a private, personal or familial activity, and the invasion occurs in a manner that is offensive to a reasonable person. A landlord is liable for constructive invasion of privacy when he attempts to record the tenant engaging in a private, personal or familial activity.

A landlord can be held liable for up to three times any general and special damages proximately caused by an invasion of privacy, as well as assessed punitive damages. She is also subject to a civil fine of not less than $5,000 and not more than $50,000. A landlord who recorded or attempted to record the tenant for a commercial purpose can face additional penalties.

A tenant who has questions as to whether a landlord’s activities are lawful or could be the basis for an invasion of privacy lawsuit should contact an attorney who is experienced in landlord/tenant law. The attorney should have more than a basic understanding of invasion of privacy law. A tenant who has experienced harassment should provide his attorney with all evidence of harassment, including communications with the landlord that contain requests to stop the harassment.

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