California laws and practices: 1--Other side tells us that if they move out and return the keys even just prior to actual UD trial commencing, the UD trial has to be either 1--Postponed / continued, or 2 --Outright canceled since the former tenant is no longer in possession and is no longer a tenant?
2--How is this handled usually--file a new $ case and try to collect the rent owed?
It is only true that the unlawful detainer trial is off calendar when possession is no longer at issue. However, the case doesn't just go away.
If the tenants filed an answer to the unlawful detainer complaint prior to moving out, then the unlawful detainer case converts to a regular civil action for money damages once possession is no longer at issue. The landlord would still have to request a trial date in order to prove-up the landlord's damages. The trial could be months and months away.
If the tenants did not file an answer to the unlawful detainer complaint, the landlord can submit a request for entry of default and for court judgment. A landlord will not be able to obtain a clerk's judgment; only a court judgment (which requires a Code of Civil Procedure section 585 declaration) for the unpaid rent as set forth in the 3-day notice and holdover damages at the reasonable daily rent rate.
If the landlord is also seeking other types of damages such as late fees and damages to the physical property beyond normal wear and tear not covered by the security deposit, the landlord cannot do so in the same unlawful detainer action. The landlord should dismiss the unlawful detainer action "without prejudice" and file a new lawsuit for breach of lease to seek the other types of damages, which may include the late fees, unpaid rent as well as future rent, and any other damages.
Note that if the landlord is an individual and the amount of unpaid rent is $10,000 or less, the landlord can use the small claims court, which is the fastest and most economical method of obtaining a judgment. (If the landlord is an entity, the small claims court limit is $5,000.) Converting to a regular civil action could take many months, compared to approximately one month for obtaining a small claims court judgment.
Practically speaking, many landlords are happy just to regain possession of the premises and are not inclined to spend more attorney's fees and costs to obtain a judgment against their former tenants who likely have no assets. Such landlords typically dismiss their unlawful detainer complaint by filing a Request for Dismissal (Judicial Council Form CIV-110).
Frank W. Chen is licensed to practice law in the State of California. The information presented here is general in nature and is not intended, nor should be construed, as legal advice. This posting does not create any attorney-client relationship with the author. For specific advice about your particular situation, consult your own attorney.
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