Experiences at Small Claims Court in San Francisco
June 24, 2014 6:09 PM   Subscribe

We moved out of our rental house and our property owner is refusing to return our full deposit or interest earned over the 9.5 years we lived there. What are our chances of winning in small claims court? A wall of snowflakes falling inside.

I am going to try and keep this question as short and organized as possible! We are aware of the laws and resources available to us, but are completely unable to see the forest for the trees. Questions are below.

The house we rented was in shoddy condition when we moved in 2004. We documented some of these things in photographs which are date stamped in Flickr. The property manager at the time told us we would get our full deposit back because of the cost and time it took us to make the place habitable. We didn't get this statement in writing.

We fought the property owner for every repair for the duration of our tenancy. She went through three different property managers, all of whom dropped her because of her unwillingness to do repairs and maintenance.

We called the SF city building inspector to force her hand at repairs twice. Once for a severe mosquito infestation, once because we didn't have heat for upwards of five months during this past winter. At the second inspection, the city inspector cited the property owner for many infractions including lack of safe egress, rats, illegal wiring, no working heat, illegally placed gas lines, and a leak in the roof.

The property owner was well aware of these repairs before the inspector required them. We have some documentation of our repair requests, but they were made to the property manager at the time (who dumped her during the city inspection process). She was terribly difficult during the time of the second inspection in particular, but gave us half-off one month's rent while we waited for heat -- much less than what would be prescribed if we had gone to the SF rent board.

9.5 intermittently stressful years passed and we finally moved out!

Move out:
For the final few months before we moved out, we did not have a property manager.

We had our final inspection with the property owner on May 30, and she reported the following damage, amounting to exactly our deposit and interest (~$3600):

1. We ruined the hardwood floors beyond normal wear and tear and need to refinish them.

2. We ruined the countertops in her kitchen requiring a full replacement.

True, both of these items were in need of repair. They were when we moved in. We also lived there for upwards of 10 years with two children.

We sent a follow-up letter to the property owner a day after our inspection including some documentation and photos regarding her perceived damages. We asked for our full deposit and interest back.

The legally prescribed 21 calendar days passed without a check or invoice, so we sent her an SF court generated letter asking for our deposit.

We received the check today for $2100, but no other invoices. She did include a two page letter about what a wonderful property owner she has been all of these years, replacing the heater and stove for us, repairing the roof when it was leaking, etc. She also listed more damages that were not mentioned during the final inspection, that are both superfluous and untrue. We are well aware that she is not allowed to add damages post inspection.

1. Do we cash the check for $2100?

2. Do we have a case (with what you have read here)? Would going to small claims court be a huge waste of our time and energy?

3. Should we seek the rest of the money we feel she owes us? Plus damages?

4. Are small claims court judges in San Francisco typically pro property owner or tenant? Are they pretty fair?

5. Should we go to the former property managers and ask for letters of support?

Maybe the real question should be: "Will this small claims court experience be more stressful and time-consuming than the $1700 + award we may or may not win?"

We are really tired of this property owner taking advantage of us and would really like to move on, either way.

Thank you so much for reading my question! I really appreciate it.
posted by mamabear to Law & Government (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What was the actual full deposit amount?
posted by rhizome at 6:44 PM on June 24, 2014

posted by mamabear at 6:46 PM on June 24, 2014

I have heard that stuff in San Fran tends to be pretty pro-tenant, and since you have all that documentation, I don't think it would be hard to win your case. I personally would cash that check and then sue for the rest, since if you don't cash it you might not get anything. Obviously you should wait for someone who's a lawyer to give a legal opinion. I just feel like a bird in the hand is definitely better than some in the bush.
posted by Slinga at 6:50 PM on June 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, to answer your "real" question -- I went to small claims court in L.A. on a very similar issue. It was not that stressful. It was not the favorite experience of my life, but it was totally worth it. I had to expend some energy to find the appropriate info on the website, figure out how to serve the landlord, how to get a court date, etc. The actual day in court involved a bunch of waiting, and then the judge basically just wanted to hear my facts and hear the landlord's facts. No arguing. And I won.

Also, in L.A. at least you do not hear the judgement while you are in the courtroom. They mail you the verdict. So you don't have to worry about having an ugly confrontation with her right there if you win.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:58 PM on June 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you gone to the SF Tenants Union for advice? I think that they could give you some good preparation advice. If you organize your records and paperwork, I think you have a good chance of prevailing. Especially if she either blows it off or is unprepared once she gets to court.
posted by quince at 6:59 PM on June 24, 2014

Without an invoice, they forfeit the right to any of the deposit. This means they're on the hook for $9000 in California, and if a judge happens to find that there were some allowable deductions, they come from the $9000, not the $3000. However, the small claims limit in CA is $7500, but that's still $5400 vs. $900. I'm not sure the remaining $1500 would be worth the lawyer you'd need for regular civil court. If my understanding is correct, I'd go for it.
posted by rhizome at 7:05 PM on June 24, 2014

Small claims court is pretty easy; even if it's a waste of your time and energy, it won't be a huge waste. And it sounds like your landlord has done a pretty shoddy job of dotting i's and crossing t's, so it probably won't be a waste of effort. My wife and I had a similar circumstance in LA county, and the court didn't have much patience for our sloppy landlord.

Also, you should cash the check. Birds, hands, and bushes.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:36 PM on June 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I didn't have to get farther than that the city cited her for repairs!

If you show up with documentation, YES, you should prevail in small claims.

Good luck!

PS - don't forget to write a proper demand letter asking for the full amount + interest and send it certified mail to you landlord!!
posted by jbenben at 7:51 PM on June 24, 2014

Actually, in California you can sue for up to $10,000 in small claims (generally, some exceptions may apply).
posted by China Grover at 10:13 PM on June 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

In case you're wondering where that $9000 came from, see http://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/landlordbook/sec-deposit.shtml, including:
If you prove to the court that the landlord acted in "bad faith" in refusing to return your security deposit, the court can order the landlord to pay you the amount of the improperly withheld deposit, plus up to twice the amount of the security deposit as a "bad faith" penalty. The court can award a bad faith penalty in addition to actual damages whenever the facts of the case warrant—even if the tenant has not requested the penalty.
It sounds like you can only be awarded the bad faith penalty on the total owed to you minus the $2100 they already sent you.

As for your interest, the landlord should have been paying that to you every year; see http://www.sfrb.org/index.aspx?page=960.

For up to $900 times 3, plus whatever's going on with your interest, I'd totally put in the effort for small claims. Especially since your landlord has been such a jerk all along.posted by ktkt at 11:17 PM on June 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for your information and support! So helpful! I love Metafilter!

posted by mamabear at 9:40 AM on June 25, 2014

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