I moved out of my apartment on Dec. 31. For more than a month after moving out the landlord did not contact me about my security deposit, despite him having my phone number and forwarding address. I contacted my ex-landlord this week and asked him to send the security deposit to me. He told me that damages to the apartment were in excess of the security deposit and sent me a receipt itemizing damages and cleaning costs that were completely bogus.
Question: Because the landlord waited more than 21 days to issue the receipt, am I AUTOMATICALLY entitled to a refund of the security deposit (regardless of the landlord's claims of damage) if I file suit?
Am I AUTOMATICALLY entitled to treble damages if I file suit, or must I prove his cleaning charges and claims of damage are false?
As the plaintiff you will still be required to prove that you are entitled to a refund of your security deposit. Further, even if you prove that the landlord did not reasonably incur the claiming repair or cleaning costs, you can only recover treble damages if you prove the landlord acted in bad faith. Civil Code 1950.5
No, not automatically. However, you should be entitled to get back your entire deposit. According to the California Supreme Court decision in the case of Granberry v. Islay Investments (1995) 9 Cal.4th 738, 745, after the 21 days have transpired, the landlord loses the right to keep any of the security deposit and must return the entire deposit to the tenant.
No, not automatically. Bad faith retention penalties under Civil Code section 1950.5(l) are rarely awarded. A tenant would have to prove to the court that the landlord acted in bad faith in refusing to return your security deposit. This normally means that you have to prove the landlord intentionally acted to deprive you of your security deposit. If the landlord didn't provide notice of the right to an initial inspection, it kind of shows lack of intent. If the landlord did conduct an initial inspection and made promises at that time to the tenant that the deposit would be fully refunded because the place was immaculate and well-kept, but then not only withheld the entire deposit despite having the tenant's new address, but also billed the tenant for thousands and thousands of dollars to discourage the tenant from suing in small claims court, that might constitute bad faith.
Frank W. Chen has been licensed to practice law in California since 1988. The information presented here is general in nature and is not intended, nor should be construed, as legal advice for a particular case. This Avvo.com posting does not create any attorney-client relationship with the author. For specific advice about your particular situation, please consult with your own attorney.
Real Estate Attorney
The landlord who does not meet the 21-day rule must return the security deposit. But that landlord may still turn around and sue the tenant for any damage or unpaid rent. The landlord may also bring a cross-complaint when the tenant sues for the deposit.