California State Laws Prohibiting Landlord Retaliation

Landlords who illegally retaliate against tenants who exercise legal rights might be liable for paying the tenant's damages and punitive damages.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Most landlords, when a tenant brings an issue to their attention, evaluate the situation and respond by either making a change or explaining why a change might not be possible. Some landlords, on the other hand, decide to respond to a tenant's complaint by taking revenge on the tenant—even when the tenant has raised a legitimate, legally protected concern.

California law explicitly prohibits landlords from taking retaliatory measures against tenants who exercise a legal right. Here's what landlords and tenants need to know about a tenant's right to voice a concern without fear of retribution from the landlord.

Types of Acts That Might Be Landlord Retaliation

California law specifically mentions certain acts that might be considered landlord retaliation in response to a tenant's legally protected acts.

As long as a tenant is current with rent, a landlord who takes any of the following actions within 180 days of a tenant exercising a legally protected right might be found liable for wrongful tenant retaliation:

  • starting an eviction lawsuit against the tenant
  • causing the tenant to leave involuntarily (perhaps by changing the locks)
  • increasing the rent
  • decreasing any services available to the tenant at the rental (such as changing the code for access to the laundry room), or
  • reporting the tenant to immigration officials.

It's also improper for the landlord to threaten to do any of these acts in response to the tenant exercising a legally protected act. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1942.5 (2023).)

Retaliation and Immigration

California landlords also cannot disclose or threaten to disclose to any government authority information regarding tenants' or occupants' immigration or citizenship status for the purpose of retaliating. Landlords who violate this law might be liable to the complaining party for actual damages, punitive damages, and attorneys' fees. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1940.35 (2023).)

Tenant Rights Protected Against Landlord Retaliation in California

In California, it's illegal for a landlord to retaliate against a tenant who has exercised certain legal rights. The protected acts include:

(Cal. Civ. Code § 1942.5 (2023).)

What Tenants Can Do When a Landlord Retaliates

Depending on the situation, there are several ways a tenant can respond to the retaliation. For example, if the landlord retaliates by bringing an eviction lawsuit against the tenant, the tenant can present the retaliation as a defense to being evicted.

If the retaliation takes another form besides eviction—such as the landlord threatening to call immigration officials—the tenant can file a lawsuit against the landlord.

The tenant can claim illegal retaliation against the landlord only once in any 12-month period—the courts want to make sure that tenants aren't claiming retaliation lightly. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1942.5(b) (2023).)

Penalties for Illegal Landlord Retaliation in California

When a landlord is found liable for illegal retaliation, the tenant is entitled to recover:

  • any actual damages incurred (such as the cost of paying for a hotel when the locks were changed)
  • punitive damages (damages intended to punish the landlord) of $100 to $2,000 for each retaliatory act if the tenant shows fraud, oppression, or malice on the landlord's part, and
  • reasonable attorneys' fees if requested at the beginning of the lawsuit.

(Cal. Civ. Code § 1942.5 (2023).)

Either party—the landlord or the tenant—can request at the beginning of the lawsuit that the court order the losing party to pay the other's attorneys' fees. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1942.5(i) (2023).) So, if you're a tenant considering asserting that your landlord is retaliating against you, be sure to assess the strength of your case before moving forward—otherwise, you might be on the hook for paying your landlord's attorney.

California Resources on Tenant Rights

For advice on suspected landlord retaliation and other tenant issues, see Tenants Together, a statewide tenants' rights organization. Another useful resource on landlord-tenant law is LawHelpCA. Also, the Nolo book California Tenants' Rights includes provides more detail on illegal retaliatory evictions.

Also, check your local housing ordinances for any city or county rules that protect tenants from landlord retaliation. To find yours, call your mayor or city manager's office or check your city or county website.

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