The State of California has a comprehensive set of laws that protect renters from bad landlords. A landlord that fails to comply with the minimum standards under the law related to a dwelling unit can be liable to a tenant for a breach of contract and for personal injuries such as emotional distress. Where the conduct is extreme, punitive damages can also be awarded. In rare cases, a landlord can be prosecuted criminally.
The law sets forth certain basic requirements that a rental unit must have. These include obvious things such as heat, plumbing, lights, functioning electrical units, smoke detectors, hot and cold running water, locking doors and windows.
If a landlord fails to provide a habitable premises, an aggrieved tenant has several options. These include reporting the landlord to a local housing authority, withholding rent (which we almost never recommend) and bringing a lawsuit against the landlord.
The damages that can be awarded for a breach of contract in this context are the difference between what the tenant paid in rent and the reasonable value of the rental unit. For example, if a tenant is paying $1,000 per month for an apartment without a heater, a court might determine that the fair market value for that unit is only $800 per month. In that situation, the tenant would be entitled to a refund of $200 per month for each month that the unit did not have heat.
In addition, an aggrieved tenant can recover for emotional distress damages. In the landlord tenant context, this could include things such as stress, anger, embarrassment, frustration, loss of sleep, fear and helplessness. In egregious cases, a tenant may be entitled to punitive damages.
The attorneys at Otten & Joyce, LLP have been representing tenants against landlords for over a decade and have recovered substantial monetary awards in settlements and/or obtained improved living conditions for tenants.