A large percentage of evictions could be considered retaliatory since the landlord is taking action against the tenant for failing to pay rent or breaking some provision in the agreement. In California, the law prohibits landlord retaliation intended to punish tenants for exercising their legal rights.
No state mandates that a landlord has to love his tenants and, over time, even the best landlord/tenant relationship can become strained. Since landlords can evict tenants in California for almost any reason under state law, a strained relationship can quickly deteriorate into a forced parting of the ways.
But if a tenant's "sin" was exercising his legal rights, then the landlord is prohibited by state law from retaliating against him by raising rent or terminating the tenancy. It doesn't have to be the sole reason for the action, it just has to be one of the reasons.
Retaliatory Evictions in California
A California landlord cannot legally evict a tenant or take any other negative action against her if one of the reasons for the action was to punish the tenant for exercising certain, specified legal rights. Those rights include:
- Using or threatening to use the repair and deduct remedy.
- Making or filing complaints about the condition of the rental unit to the landlord or to a public agency after giving the landlord notice.
- Taking legal action against the landlord because of the condition of the rental unit.
- Seeking an inspection of the dwelling unit from the appropriate public agency.
Proving Retaliatory Motive
Even though punishing a tenant for exercising his rights need not be the sole motive of the landlord, the tenant may have a hard time proving it was among the landlord's motivations to retaliate. How can someone prove what another person was thinking when they took action?
California makes this easier for a tenant to prove in court by establishing a legal presumption that the landlord had a retaliatory motive in certain circumstances. That presumption applies if the landlord starts an eviction, raises the rent or takes some other action that negatively impacts the tenant and the action is taken within six months of the time the tenant exercised any of the specified legal rights.
Note that this creates a presumption, not an open-and-shut case. If the tenant proves that she threatened to use the repair and deduct remedy or called the city to complain or to request an inspection of the unit six months or less before the landlord's action, the burden is on the landlord to prove that he did not act in retaliation.
Retaliatory Actions in California
When people talk about landlord retaliation in California, they usually mean filing for, or threatening, eviction. But evicting a tenant is only one of a variety of negative actions landlords can take against tenants for exercising their legal rights.
Perhaps the next most common retaliatory action is to increase the rent. The rent increase in a non-rent-controlled unit might be so large that the tenant would be forced to move out. The landlord might also reduce services or even report the tenant's immigration or citizenship status to federal agencies to retaliate.
Penalties for Illegal Retaliation
Landlords who violate the prohibition against landlord retaliation set out in California Civil Code Section 1942.5 can be ordered to pay damages to the tenant. The court can award actual damages and/or punitive damages when the landlord acted with malice. The court must award the winning party attorney fees if either party asked for attorney fees in their opening documents.
Note that many cities in California have enacted rent control laws. These can restrict evictions to those "for cause," and can also put strict limits on rent increases. Rent control laws usually provide for additional penalties for retaliatory actions by the landlord.