Small Claims, Resident Mgr, Laws


Q: One of my former tenants took me to small claims court over her security deposit. She claims that I was unreasonable in spending all of it, because she claims she had a cleaning crew come through the place before she moved out. Well, I don’t know if she used a cleaning crew or a wrecking crew, because the place was trashed. Anyway, the judge in the small claims court apparently liked her, and I guess I lost my temper at the hearing. When all the dust settled, the judge ordered me to pay her! Go figure. The little paper says that I have time to appeal this decision if I want to. I basically wanted to know what happens in the event of an appeal, and whether or not I could have a lawyer handle it.

A small claims appeal is a “trial de novo;” that is, the appellate hearing will be a “new trial.” You, as the Defendant, essentially get another chance to prove your case. By and large, the structure of the proceeding is essentially the same. However, on a small claims appeal, as opposed to the initial small claims proceeding, you may have an attorney represent you. In your situation, if you’re afraid that you might lose your temper again, call a lawyer who will talk about the case with you. Of course, there are times when it’s simply more cost effective to “go it alone,” when the amount you’re fighting over is less than the cost of retaining counsel. If this is the case for you, and you really feel that you were not treated fairly in the small claims court, then appeal the decision. Just remember to take a deep breath out in the hallway.

Q: I am a resident manager of a 16-unit complex. I received a telephone call from a person wanting to rent a unit in our small complex. I asked the prospective tenant if she had any children. She got offended and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I could not ask that question. I replied by thanking her for her criticism and hung up the telephone. Is the prospective tenant correct that I cannot ask if she has any children?

Yes. Rather than ask how many children will reside in the unit, a more relevant question would be to ask how many occupants would reside in the unit. Most acts of discrimination in rental housing occur during the resident screening process. For this reason, it is prudent to put your screening procedures in writing and to adhere to them strictly and impartially. All rental units must be available to families with children. Furthermore, rules designed to discourage families from applying to rent may lead to the filing of discrimination complaints. Minimize the pre-screening over the telephone; you never know if the caller is truly a prospective applicant or just a tester from Fair Housing hoping that you will say something actionable.

Q: A young couple responded to a recent advertisement for a two-bedroom apartment. The couple came over to the property and like always, I show everyone the very same unit. I really didn’t think these kids would fit in with my more mature residents, so I told them about the big mega apartment complex down the street. I have recently attended a property management training class put on by the local apartment association and I was told that my conduct was discriminatory. I was looking at the interest of the applicants; I truly didn’t think they would enjoy themselves. Was my conduct in violation of the anti-discriminatory laws?

Yes. You cannot “steer” certain prospective residents to another complex that you think they’d like better. Do not attempt to discourage prospective residents by saying, “You wouldn’t like it here—it’s too noisy” or “there are mostly adults living here, so your children wouldn’t have anyone to play with.” Additionally, be truthful about vacancies. Don’t say that there are no units available when, in fact, there are units available. Clearly, this also applies to the sizes and types of units available. Don’t pretend that there are no two bedroom units available, or no units with other desirable features, if there actually are. Don’t deliberately show certain prospective residents the least desirable vacancies on the property. The key is fairness—it is illegal to show only the units that are dirty, damaged or otherwise unattractive to certain prospective residents, while showing clean, attractive units to others.

Q: I just sent out my annual rent increases to all of my residents. Because times are tough, I delayed sending them out, and I kept the increases minimal. Well, I just got home, checked my messages, and got an earful from one of my more “vocal” residents. She claims that I was retaliating against her, and that the rent increase notice was not valid. Says that she won’t pay it, and that I violated the law by even giving it to her. Something about her deducting $6.50 from her rent three or four months ago for a leaky faucet. I remember that she shorted the rent, but I didn’t really mind, she took care of the dripping faucet herself. What does this mean; what is “retaliation?” Did I do something illegal by serving my annual rent increase notice?

No. Although there are strong protections in place for certain tenant conduct, your resident is confused. A landlord cannot punish a tenant for exercising a “legal right.” The law offers tenants certain protections from retaliatory evictions and retaliatory acts. California law will infer that a landlord has a retaliatory motive if he seeks to evict the tenant or take other retaliatory action within six months after the tenant has exercised certain pro tected rights, including using the repair and deduct remedy, com plaining about the condition of the unit to a public agency, after giving the landlord notice, or after filing a lawsuit based upon the condition of the unit. The tenant must prove that she exercised one of these rights, in the past six months, and that her rent is current.

The landlord may counter the tenant’s claims of retaliatory conduct by establishing that he did not have a retaliatory motive. If the landlord’s actions were based on a valid reason, and not in response to the tenant’s exercise of a protected right, then a court would find that the landlord did not retaliate. If your annual rent increase was consistent with past practices, didn’t solely target this individual tenant, was based upon objective business reasons, and was not meant to “punish” this resident, then your rent increase would most likely not be deemed retaliatory.

This article is presented in a general nature to address typical landlord tenant legal issues. Specific inquiries regarding a particular situation should be addressed to your attorney. Stephen C. Duringer is the founder of The Duringer Law Group, PLC, one of the largest and most experienced landlord tenant law firms in the country. The firm has successfully handled over 255,000 landlord tenant matters throughout California, and has collected over $155,000,000.00 in debt since 1988. The firm may be reached at 714-279-1100 or 800-829-6994. Please visit for more information.