Illegal Eviction Procedures in California

California landlords must follow specific rules and procedures when evicting a tenant

California landlords must follow specific rules and procedures when evicting a tenant (see California Tenants’ Rights for details). The state forbids landlords from taking the law into their own hands. Examples of illegal “self-help” evictions include changing the locks, taking the tenant’s belongings, removing the front door, or turning off the heat or electricity.

How to Sue Over an Illegal Eviction

A tenant who is illegally evicted can either sue the landlord (either in civil court or small claims court) or use the illegal eviction as a defense or countersuit to an eviction lawsuit.

After trying to illegally evict a tenant, the landlord might decide to go to court and bring an eviction lawsuit against the tenant. Even if the eviction lawsuit is valid (most likely because the tenant failed to pay rent or violated the lease), the tenant could still bring evidence that the landlord tried to illegally evict the tenant and then receive damages from the landlord for the illegal eviction.

If the tenant sues the landlord through the civil court, then the tenant can also ask the court for an injunction (or order) against the landlord prohibiting the landlord from illegally evicting the tenant again. Injunctions are not, however, allowed as a remedy in small claims court.

How Much a Court Could Award a Tenant After an Illegal Eviction

A landlord who illegally evicts a tenant in California is liable to the tenant for certain damages. Whether the tenant sues in civil court or small claims court, the tenant may recover the following amounts:

  • actual damages (out-of-pocket losses), such as motel bills if the tenant has to find a temporary place to live because the landlord cut off utility service, and
  • punitive damages of up to $100 per day of violation (but not less than $250 in punitive damages for each separate violation).

The tenant may also be awarded court costs and attorney fees.

How to Find More Information

If you decide to sue your landlord over an illegal eviction, check out California law (you’ll find the California rules prohibiting self-help evictions at Cal. Civ. Code § 789.3). See the Laws and Legal Research section of this site for advice on finding and reading statutes.

It’s also a good idea to get advice from a local tenants’ rights group in California. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website includes information on tenant advocates for each state.

Finally, consider consulting an experienced tenants’ lawyer. See Tips on Hiring and Working With Lawyers for advice. For a wide range of other articles of interest to tenants, see the Renters’ and Tenants’ Rights section of this site.

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