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Can landlord sue ex-tenant three years later?

A tenant allowed the landlord to keep the security deposit but has been told that more money is owed. Is it too late to be taken to Small Claims Court?

August 07, 2011|By Martin Eichner

Question: I moved out of an apartment more than three years ago. I knew that I didn't leave the place in perfect condition, but I figured I would call it even if my landlord kept my security deposit. Instead, I received a letter from him telling me that he was keeping my security deposit and that I owed him $800 for additional damage to the property. I thought that claim was totally unfair, so I didn't respond. Now, three years later, that landlord has served me with a Small Claims Court lawsuit for $1,000 in damages. Isn't this lawsuit too late?

Answer: To give you accurate advice, some questions need to be answered. First, was your rental agreement with this landlord in writing or was it oral? The statute of limitations to enforce the terms of a written agreement is four years, which means this lawsuit is still timely if you had a written agreement. A claim based on an oral agreement must be brought within two years.

Another question is whether the original letter from your landlord was timely. California Civil Code Section 19505.5 requires a landlord to provide a written accounting of a tenant's security deposit within 21 days after the tenant vacates. Did your former landlord meet this requirement? If not, you have a strong argument that the entire deposit should be refunded.

If the judge feels that the landlord's delay was in bad faith, there is an additional penalty that you could claim equal to twice the deposit amount, in addition to refund of the deposit itself.

Did the landlord's letter include documentation of the amount of damages claimed? Under Section 1950.5, any deductions for repairs or damages or cleaning that total more than $125 must be accompanied by receipts or invoices supporting them.

In addition to these issues, you have the right to attack whether the claimed damages were reasonable, since you felt there was no significant damage to the property when you left. In this type of case, the landlord has the burden of proving that the damages were justified. If you have any photos or other documentation of the conditions when you left, your case will be stronger.

Depending on the answers to these questions, a local mediation program might be able to help you negotiate a compromise settlement of these claims. There is no "open and shut" case in Small Claims Court, because the procedure is informal and the parties represent themselves. Both sides have an incentive to settle before the court date to save the time and stress of a trial. In addition, the party winning at trial will have to collect the judgment awarded, which can often prove more difficult than winning the case.

Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a mediation service based in Sunnyvale, Calif. To submit a question, go to http://www.housing.org.

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