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Unlawful Detainer Actions

A. Nature of the Landlord-Tenant Relationship.

  1. Landlord-Tenant Relationship. The landlord-tenant relationship is created by contract. The contract, known by a variety of names, may be oral or written, express or implied. The contract must show, expressly of from the facts, that the parties intend to create a landlord-tenant relationship. (Santa Monica Rent Control Bd. v. Bluvshtein (1991) 230 Cal.App.3d 308, 281 Cal.Rptr. 298).
  2. Lease or Periodic Rental Agreement. The agreement entered into between the landlord and tenant is either a lease or periodic rental agreement. Generally, a lease creates a longer rental term (6 months to 1 year, for example), whereas a rental agreement is for shorter periods, usually month to month (but, could be shorter).
  3. Character of Leasehold. A leasehold is a chattel real and governed by the rules applicable to personal property. (Witkin, 4 Summary of California Law, Real Property §510; Civil Code §765). However, a leasehold is also an estate in land and an interest in real property. (Parker v. Superior Court of Riverside County (1970) 9 Cal.App.3d 397, 88 Cal.Rptr. 352). It vests exclusive possession of the property in the lessee and is based on a privity of estate between lessor and lessee. (Darr v. Lone Star Industries, Inc. (1979) 94 Cal.App.3d 895, 157 Cal.Rptr. 90).
  4. Implied Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment. Every lease contains an implied covenant of quiet enjoyment, whereby the landlord covenants that the tenant shall have quiet enjoyment and possession of the premises. A convenant of quiet enjoyment “insulates the tenant against any act or omission on the part of the landlord, or anyone claiming under him, which interferes with a tenant’s right to use and enjoy the premises for the purposes contemplated by the tenancy.
  5. Landlord’s Right of Entry. A landlord’s access to dwelling units is limited by statute. A “dwelling unit” means a structure or part of a structure that is used as a home, residence, or sleeping place by one person who maintains a household or two or more persons who maintain a common household. (Civil Code section 1940(c)). A landlord may enter a dwelling unit only (Civil Code §1954): (a) in case of emergency; (b) to make necessary or agreed repairs, decorations, alterations or improvements, supply necessary or agreed services, or exhibit the dwelling unit to prospective or actual purchasers, mortgagees, tenants, workers or contractors; (c) when the tenant has abandoned or surrendered the premises; or (d) pursuant to court order. Except in an emergency, twenty-four hours is presumed to be reasonable notice in absence of evidence to the contrary. (Civil Code §1954).

B. Liability for Rent.

  1. Nature of Obligation to Pay Rent. Rent is consideration paid by a tenant for the use of the property. The obligation may arise from a lease or, absent a lease, from mere occupancy with the landlord’s consent. Tenancies based on mere occupancy give rise to the liability of rent (as opposed to damages), not from contract, but from the relationship of landlord and tenant. The tenant is liable by operation of law. (Ellington v. Walsh, O’Connor & Barneson (1940) 15 Cal.2d 673, 104 P.2d 507).
  2. Uninhabitable Dwelling A warranty of habitability is implied by law in residential leases. Under this warranty, a residential landlord covenants that the premises leased for living quarters will be maintained in a habitable state for the duration of the lease. Further, a tenant’s obligation to pay rent and the landlord’s warranty of habitability are mutually dependent. Thus, a proven breach by the landlord may justify a tenant withholding rent while continuing to reside on the premises. (Green v. Superior Court of San Francisco (1974) 10 Cal.3d 616, 111 Cal.Rptr. 704).
  3. Recovery of Rent from Tenant. [§17:17]
  4. Security Deposits Distinguished. Controversies between landlords and tenants commonly arise over the refund of security deposits to the vacating tenant. Determining whether the money collected by the landlord represents security or merely rent is central to resolving these controversies. (see Granberry v. Islay Invs. (1984) 161 Cal.App.3d 382, 2017 Cal.Rptr. 652). The collection, use, and refund of security deposits for residential tenancies is governed by Civil Code §1950.5. Rules governing commercial tenancies are contained in Civil Code §1950.7.

C. Unlawful Detainer Actions.

  1. Nature of the Proceedings The summary proceedings of forcible entry or detainer are the appropriate remedy for a party seeking possession of the property and are more expeditious than an action for damages based on tort. Courts must give precedence for setting the trial or hearing of proceedings for recovery of possession of real property pursuant to forcible entry or detainer statutes over all other civil actions. These proceedings must be quickly heard and determined. (Code of Civil Procedure §1179a).
    The only “triable” issue is the right to possession and incidental damages resulting from the unlawful detention. (Vasey v. California Dance Co., Inc. (1977) 70 Cal.App.3d 742, 746-747, 139 Cal.Rptr. 72). Specifically, unlawful detainers can only adjudicate limited issues: i.e., possession, back-rent due (pursuant to three-day notice to “pay or quit” and “damages” (limited to rental value accruing from date of termination up to time of judgment, plus statutory damages in cases of “malice,” and costs of suit and attorney fees if applicable).
  2. Service of Summons A summons must be issued on the filing of a complaint for forcible entry or detainer. (Code of Civil Procedure §1166). The summons must be in the form specified in Code of Civil Procedure §412.20. In all other respects, the summons must be issued and served and returned in the same manner as a summons in a civil action. (Code of Civil Procedure §1167).
  3. Unlawful Detainer Complaint. All unlawful detainer complaints must contain certain minimum allegations and attachments. (Code of Civil Procedure §1166).
  4. Responsive Pleading. Unlike in civil actions generally, the defendant’s response must be filed within 5 days after the complaint is served on him or her, including Saturdays and Sundays (but excluding all other judicial holidays). if the last day for filing the response falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the response period is extended to an includes the next court day. Affirmative defenses may be pleaded only to the extent they might defeat the landlord’s right to possession. In fact, the issues in unlawful detainer actions are so strictly limited that defendants cannot file cross-complaints. (Union Oil Co. v. Chandler (1970) 4 Cal.App.3d 716, 721, 84 Cal.Rptr. 756).
  5. Damages. Damages are awardable in an unlawful detainer action only to the limited extent authorized by statute. (Code of Civil Procedure §§1166 and 1174). Specifically, the damages sought must be directly related to the unlawful detention. All other damages arising out of the tenancy are recoverable only through an independent civil action 9not a summary proceeding). Accrued rent is recoverable only in an unlawful detainer for nonpayment of rent (i.e., pursuant to a Code of Civil Procedure §1161(2) or §1161.1 three-day notice to “pay or quit”). In addition to accrued “rent,” the landlord in an unlawful detainer for nonpayment of rent is entitled to recover “damages” for rental losses occurring after the period covered by the three-day notice has elapsed. (Code of Civil Procedure §1174(b)). In any other unlawful detainer (not based on nonpayment of rent), the only “damages” recoverable are those occasioned by defendant’s wrongful holding over (Code of Civil procedure §1174(b)) – meaning the reasonable rental value of the premises from the time of termination of the tenancy through the time that the tenant unlawfully detained (up until entry of the unlawful detainer judgment). (Code of Civil Procedure §1174).
    In addition to rent and rental loss damages (above) the landlord is entitled to “statutory damages” of up to $600.00 if “malice” is pleaded and proved. (Code of Civil Procedure §1174(b)). Statutorily-authorized costs of suit may be awarded to the “prevailing party,”(California Rules of Court, Rule 3.1700) and attorney fees are awardable if authorized by the rental agreement or otherwise by statute or law. (Code of Civil Procedure §1033.5(a)(10) and 9c)(5); Civil Code section 1717(a)).

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