Yes, you have a case but it won't necessarily be slam dunk. Although the landlord can deduct from your security deposit for unpaid back rent, you are not obligated to pay rent to a landlord if the rental dwelling is truly uninhabitable.
If you do not receive your security deposit back within 21 days after you moved out, you can file your small claims lawsuit.
Under California Civil Code section 1950.5, within 21 calendar days after a tenant moves out, the landlord must either send a full refund of the security deposit, or mail or personally deliver to the tenant an itemized statement that lists the amounts of any deductions from the security deposit and the reasons for the deductions, together with a refund of any amounts not deducted.
Pursuant to Civil Code section 1950.5, the landlord may only use the tenant's security deposit for four purposes:
1) For unpaid rent;
2) For cleaning the rental unit when the tenant moves out (but only to make the unit as clean as it was when the tenant first moved in);
3) For repair of damages, other than normal wear and tear, caused by the tenant or the tenant's guests; and
4) If the lease or rental agreement allows it, for the cost of restoring or replacing furniture, furnishings, or other items of personal property other than because of normal wear and tear.
A tenant who does not receive a return of the security deposit from the landlord will often need to sue the landlord in small claims court to get the security deposit back. However, the risk is that the landlord will likely countersue the tenant for damages above and beyond what the security deposit covered.
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.
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.