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California Eviction Defense: The Different Affirmative Defenses For An Unlawful Detainer

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Whether you are a tenant or a landlord, dealing with an eviction in California can be stressful, complicated, and time-consuming. If you are a tenant currently facing an eviction, you may be wondering what defenses you can allege to defend your case. As lawyers with tremendous experience navigating eviction and unlawful detainer cases, Forward Law Group strives to provide accurate, useful information to people across California about common legal matters. In this article, our Forward Law Group team focuses on affirmative defenses commonly used in unlawful detainer cases. A tenant can use various affirmative defenses to prove to the Court the other party does not have a case, or, has a case that can be defended.

We begin with providing a brief background about evictions in California before discussing eviction defense and the various types of affirmative defenses for an unlawful detainer. Although each eviction case is unique based on the specific details of the case, tenants who are facing eviction will be much more informed by having this general information. If by the end of the article you decide that you need the help of a skilled law firm to help you, our Forward Law Group team is always ready to serve you. 

A Quick Background on Evictions in California

The most significant piece of legislation in recent years related to evictions was the California Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (AB 1482), which among other things, provided tenant protections from evictions without cause. In California, there are two types of just cause–at-fault and no-fault. With at-fault just cause evictions, a landlord is evicting a tenant based on the tenant’s action, or lack thereof. For example, a landlord is attempting to evict a tenant for violation of the lease agreement. Some common at-fault just causes can include nonpayment of rent, subleasing the property, or having pets despite the rental agreement having a no-pet policy. No-fault just cause evictions, on the other hand, can happen even if the tenant has not done anything wrong. For example, the landlord can decide that they want to take the property off the rental market to move into the property themselves or substantially remodel the property. 

California Eviction Process

As mentioned in the introduction, each unlawful detainer or eviction case in California is different based on the details surrounding it. That said, we believe it is still useful to have a broad understanding of what the eviction process in California is like. Although the list below is oversimplified, it provides an overview of the process.

  1. The landlord serves the tenant the appropriate 3-, 30-, 60-, or 90-day notice. The notice must be formally served and include all of the required information. 
  2. If the tenant does not comply with the notice, the landlord can then file an unlawful detainer at the expiration of said notice. Once the tenant is personally served with the unlawful detainer, they have five days to file an answer or a responsive pleading. 
  3. If the tenant does file an answer or responsive pleading, the landlord often files a Request to Set Matter for Trial. In the case that the tenant does not file an answer or responsive pleading after being served the unlawful detainer, the landlord can file a Request for Entry of Default Judgment. 
  4. During trial, the landlord must prove their case in order to be awarded possession of the subject rental property.
  5. If the tenant wins the case, they can continue living at the rental property. If the landlord wins the case, they will likely file a writ of possession and send it to the sheriff’s department who will then schedule a lockout order to ensure the tenant moves out. 

As mentioned here, if a tenant believes they are mistakenly or incorrectly being evicted, they can file an answer once they are served with an unlawful detainer. If the case goes to trial and the tenant wins, they will remain in possession of the rental property. In the next sections, we take a closer look at eviction defense. 

Can A Tenant Win An Unlawful Detainer Case in California?

The simple answer to this question is yes! A tenant in California can absolutely win an unlawful detainer case if they can prove in court that there is no legal ground for the eviction or if the landlord has not followed the correct procedure for the eviction. If a tenant believes that a landlord is trying to unjustly evict them, they should certainly consider filing an answer and going to trial so that they can continue living at the rental property. Although tenants can represent themselves in court, having an attorney representing them can help achieve their desired outcome. At Forward Law Group, our attorneys have multiple years of experience successfully helping tenants in California against landlords who were trying to evict them without any legal basis. 

What is An Unlawful Detainer Affirmative Defense?

According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School, an affirmative defense “is a defense in which the defendant introduces evidence, which, if found to be credible, will negate criminal liability or civil liability, even if it is proven that the defendant committed the alleged acts.” In the case of an unlawful detainer, the defendant would be the tenant. Furthermore, as mentioned in the definition, if the evidence (the defense) is found to be credible in court, it will negate the liability–or in this case, avoid the eviction. Affirmative defenses are presented in court during the trial for an unlawful detainer. 

Common Affirmative Defenses for An Unlawful Detainer

In California, there are dozens of affirmative defenses that could potentially be applied in an unlawful detainer to help a tenant win the case and avoid eviction. Below, we cover some of the most popular types of unlawful detainer affirmative defenses according to our lawyers at Forward Law Group. While the list below is not exhaustive, it provides key information about some of the most common affirmative defenses among tenants in California. 

Implied Warranty of Habitability

California has an implied warranty of habitability that requires landlords to keep the rental property in a condition that makes it fit for human occupation. 

Retaliatory Eviction 

Retaliatory evictions in California are illegal. A landlord cannot evict a tenant as retaliation after the tenant, for example, complained about unsafe living conditions, joined a tenant union, or exercised another legal right. 

Discriminatory Eviction (Unruh Act)

In California, landlords cannot discriminate against categories such as sex, color, race, religion, marital status, national origin, disability, age, sexual preference, or gender identification, among other things. If a tenant believes a landlord is trying to evict them due to discrimination, they can use this affirmative defense in court. 

Waiver by Acceptance of Rent

If a landlord (the plaintiff in the case) accepts the tenant’s rental payments after the service of a notice (not including a Three-Day Notice to Pay or Quit), then the landlord has essentially voided the eviction. In other words, once a landlord accepts rent after a notice, they cannot evict a tenant because they have waived their right to do so. 

Failure to Comply With Rent Control Ordinance/Tenant Protection Act

If the landlord fails to comply with a local or state rent control ordinance or if they fail to comply with the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, this can be legal grounds to successfully win an unlawful detainer case. 

Repair and Deduct

A repair and deduct is an affirmative defense that can be used by a tenant in court if they (the tenant) made repairs to the rental property, but the landlord did not give the correct or proper credit. This generally applies with the landlord’s basis for eviction is non-payment of rent.

Landlord’s Refusal of Rent

This is another type of popular affirmative defense in California. If after a notice Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit, the tenant offers to pay rent but the landlord refuses, this can be used as a defense for eviction in court. 

Defective Notice to Quit

In California, all notices by a landlord must be served in the proper way. This means they must be served by personal service to the tenant, by leaving the notice with a person of suitable age and also mailing it to the tenant, or by posting and mailing the notice. In addition, it must include all of the required information (such as the amount of rent due, for example). 

While we cover some of the most popular types of affirmative defenses in this section, there are still many more that can be applied based on the circumstances surrounding an unlawful detainer lawsuit. For more information about affirmative defenses and to see which one could potentially apply to your case, call Forward Law Group today at (818) 471-8389.

Forward Law Group–Experienced Lawyers for Eviction Defense

As described in this article, tenants can fight an eviction in Court by alleging various affirmative defenses. Although tenants can represent themselves in court, the likelihood of achieving a successful outcome increases when they have the help of a professional lawyer. At Forward Law Group, we are deeply knowledgeable about eviction laws and tenant protections in California. Throughout the years, our team has helped numerous people living across the state stand up against landlords who are illegally trying to evict them. Throughout each step of the unlawful detainer process, our attorneys will make sure you are well informed and in the best position to get the desired outcome. For more information or any questions, call us today!