Ask the County Law Librarian — Self Storage Facilities
I was hoping to find out information on laws surrounding self storages and the return of personal property such as pictures and personal papers.
I recently had a storage unit sold that contained many personal papers (contracts and agreements) and boxes full of family photos (current framed and past pictures of living and deceased members). The storage company has stated these items were to be returned and would look into the matter, but, have yet to return calls or answer when we call.
I know certain states have laws requiring these types of items be returned; does California have such a law?
Thanks and kind regards,
A. During the holidays, while we were visiting my mother-in-law and her new husband, I became hooked on a TV reality show called “Storage Wars” (it was the only thing we could all watch without some of us remembering, and others raising, uncomfortable topics). In Storage Wars a cast of regulars (and professional buyers), Darrell, “The Gambler;” Jarrod and his wife Brandi, “The Young Guns;” Dave, “The Mogul;” and Barry, “The Collector;” bid against each other and others in an auction for the contents of storage units that have been abandoned. While the show itself is obviously scripted, and the incredible “finds” may be planted (see Lawsuit Claims A&E’s “Storage Wars” Show is Rigged, ( http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=166991032 ), the show’s premise, intoned by the narrator just before the opening credits, is sound:
“When Storage Units are Abandoned, the Treasures Within are put up for Auction.”
Most of the action takes place in California, and is perfectly legal, according to Business & Professions (B&P) Code Sections 21700 through 21716, which govern self-service storage facilities. Effective January 1, 1982, the California Self-Service Storage Facility Act provides very specific guidelines for storage facility attachment liens and the subsequent sale of property that may occur due to non-payment of rent and fees.
The owners of the self-service storage facility have a lien on all personal property located at the self-storage facility for rent, labor, late-payment fees or other charges, present or future, incurred pursuant to the rental agreement, and for expenses necessary for the storage, sale, or disposal of personal property. B&P Code § 21702. A “lien” is a creditor’s legal claim against particular property owned by a debtor as security for a debt.
If any part of the rent or other charges is unpaid for fourteen (14) consecutive days, a storage facility owner may terminate the right of the renter to use the storage space by sending a notice to the renter’s last known address. Sections 21703 and 21704 of the Business & Professions Code detail the information that must be included in the preliminary lien notice. If the renter does not pay the full amount by the date specified in the preliminary lien notice, the storage facility owner’s lien attaches to the personal property. At that time, the owner may enter the space and deny the renter access to it. If the notice of lien was sent by certified mail, the owner may also remove property found in the space to a place of safekeeping. If the notice was sent by first class mail, the owner must wait another fourteen (14) days before removing the property. B&P Code § 21705.
Once the lien attaches, the owner must send the renter a Notice of Lien Sale and a blank Declaration in Opposition to Lien Sale form. The required contents of the Notice of Lien Sale are detailed in Section 21705 of the Business & Professions Code.
If the renter completes and timely returns the Declaration in Opposition to Lien, the storage facility owner may try to enforce the lien in either small claims or superior court. If the court grants the owner a judgment in his or her favor, the lien sale process continues. B&P Code § 21710.
After the lien attaches, if no declaration in opposition to the lien sale is executed, the owner of the self-service facility may sell the property. B&P Code § 21706. The sale must be advertised for two weeks prior to the sale. The advertisement must include a description of the property to be sold, the name of the storage space renter, and the name and location of the storage facility. B&P Code § 21707.
The contents of a storage unit are usually auctioned off as a single lot of items. On Storage Wars the cast bids on the contents based only upon on a five-minute inspection of what they can see from the door when it is opened (this seems to be the industry standard; you can find a list of upcoming storage auctions in your area, along with the facility’s auction guidelines, on the California Self-Storage Association’s website, http://www.californiaselfstorage.org/).
At any time before the sale, any person claiming a right to the goods can pay off the lien, plus one month’s rent in advance, and the sale will be cancelled. The claimant then has thirty (30) days to obtain a court order directing the disposition of the property. If no court order is obtained, the claimant must pay the owner the original monthly rental charge for the duration of the original rental agreement. If the claimant fails to pay, the storage facility may start the lien and sale process all over again. B&P Code § 21709.
After the sale, the storage facility owner must hold any proceeds in excess of the lien and costs of the sale for the renter. The renter may claim this money at any time within one year of the date of sale. After one year, any unclaimed proceeds are turned over to the county treasury. B&P Code § 21708.
Finally, a storage facility owner cannot take advantage of the California Self-Service Storage Facility Act’s liberal remedies for non-payment if the rental agreement does not include a statement that the renter’s property may be subject to a lien and sold to satisfy payment that is fourteen (14) days late, and does not offer the renter a space in the agreement to identify an alternate person (and address) to whom lien and sale notices must be sent. B&P Code § 21712.
If the storage facility you used failed to comply with any of the California Self-Service Storage Facility Act’s provisions regarding the notices required in your contract and the notices required for the lien and sale of your property, you could sue the storage facility owner for the value of the contents of your storage unit (in small claims court if the value does not exceed $10,000; in superior court if it does), or for the return of your personal papers and family photos and other personal property (in superior court only; small claims courts can only award monetary damages). However, the contents of your storage unit were probably bought as a whole in an auction, and whoever bought the unit probably disposed of anything that was not particularly valuable and could not be sold at a thrift or similar store.
Likewise, if you had a separate agreement with the facility to return your personal papers and family photos, you could try to enforce that agreement in superior court; the California Self-Service Storage Facility Act specifically provides that “[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to impair or affect the right of the parties to create additional rights, duties, and obligations . . . .” B&P Code § 21713. However, in addition to the burden of proving the existence of an oral contract, you would face the same, almost insurmountable hurdle mentioned above: your personal papers and family photos are probably long gone.
I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a better answer; I realize how valuable your personal papers and family photos must have been to you, if not anyone else. I hope 2013 will be a better year for you—I’m sure it will be!
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