Q: Until about a month ago, I was renting a room in a house from someone I thought was a reasonable lady. We had an argument, and she gave me 30 days notice to move out, saying that she would mail me my security deposit ten days after I had moved. The problem is, she kept $200 of my security deposit. Can I take her to small claims court for the money?
A: Small Claims court is a common venue for security deposit disputes between a landlord and a tenant. It has the advantage of being very quick, with cases typically being heard in only a few months, and of being relatively inexpensive. If the two parties can’t reach a compromise, the tenant’s best remedy might be to sue the landlord for the money withheld, relying on a judge to settle the matter. Here are a few things to keep in mind before filing a claim:
• California Civil Code §1950.5 primarily governs security deposits; be sure to read each section carefully to be aware of the various requirements for both the landlord and the tenant. Before you consider filing a claim, make certain you have complied with the law. For example, Civ. Code §1950.5(a)(3) requires “the cleaning of the premises upon termination of the tenancy necessary to return the unit to the same level of cleanliness it was in at the inception of the tenancy.” If you failed to clean any portion of your rented area (to the state it was when you moved in), the landlord has the right to withhold all or a portion of your deposit, depending on the degree of neglect. If this occurs, he or she must provide you with an itemized accounting detailing the deductions.
• Before filing, write a formal demand letter requesting the return of all or a portion of your security deposit. Include details and state why you feel you believe the deductions were inappropriate. If you fail to perform this step and the landlord points this out at the hearing, your case may be dismissed. You can find sample demand letters at your local law library, in self-help books, or online at the California Courts Self-Help Center. Contact your local law library for more information.
• Assess whether your loss is worth the time and cost of filing a claim. The current filing fees for California small claims courts will vary depending on the county and the amount of money in dispute. For example, in Sacramento County the filing fee for claims of $1,500 or less is $30. You can locate county fee schedules on county superior court websites.
• Be prepared to do a little leg-work. While suing in small claims court is far less complicated than suing in superior court, you will still need to prepare by researching the applicable laws and educating yourself on the small claims process before filing a claim. You will also want to collect and present as many pieces of evidence as possible to support your case, such as photos of the premises at move-in and move-out and a copy of the lease or rental agreement. We suggest reading Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court in California, a very useful book on the small claims process. Chapter 20 specifically addresses landlord-tenant security deposit disputes and features advice on whom and where to sue and what each party should bring to court. Two other helpful books are California Tenants' Rights and The California Landlord's Law Book: Rights and Responsibilities. These resources are available for review at your local county law library and/or directly from the publisher at www.nolo.com. To locate the nearest county law library visit: http://www.publiclawlibrary.org/find.html
There are several resources available to those looking for information on small claims courts. Every county in California has a Small Claims Advisor that can assist you with your case free of charge. You can find county-specific court information including Small Claims Advisors here: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/smallclaims/scbycounty.htm
California’s Department of Consumer Affairs has a useful web page that provides some basic small claims information, including a glossary of terms. For more in-depth information, the California Courts Self-Help Center has a page with links to forms, county-specific fee schedules and court locations, and a list of FAQs.
You can always do some research at the Sacramento County Public Law Library http://www.saclaw.org. The law library has print and electronic resources on the small claims court process in California, and friendly reference law librarians are available to assist you.
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