Yes, this type of claim is most appropriately addressed in a small claims court lawsuit. See the links at:
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.
Landlords who effectively evict a tenant themselves without following the proper legal procedure run the risk of California penalties for self-help evictions. If a landlord violates the law, a tenant may sue the landlord. California Civil Code section 789.3 (a) provides as follows:
"789.3. (a) A landlord shall not with intent to terminate the
occupancy under any lease or other tenancy or estate at will, however
created, of property used by a tenant as his residence willfully
cause, directly or indirectly, the interruption or termination of any
utility service furnished the tenant, including, but not limited to,
water, heat, light, electricity, gas, telephone, elevator, or
refrigeration, whether or not the utility service is under the
control of the landlord.
(b) In addition, a landlord shall not, with intent to terminate
the occupancy under any lease or other tenancy or estate at will,
however created, of property used by a tenant as his or her
(1) Prevent the tenant from gaining reasonable access to the
property by changing the locks or using a bootlock or by any other
similar method or device;
(2) Remove outside doors or windows; or
(3) Remove from the premises the tenant's personal property, the
furnishings, or any other items without the prior written consent of
the tenant, except when done pursuant to the procedure set forth in
Chapter 5 (commencing with Section 1980) of Title 5 of Part 4 of
Nothing in this subdivision shall be construed to prevent the
lawful eviction of a tenant by appropriate legal authorities, nor
shall anything in this subdivision apply to occupancies defined by
subdivision (b) of Section 1940."
A landlord who violates California Civil Code Section 789.3 shall be liable to the tenant in a civil action for all of the following:
-- Actual damages;
-- $100/day of violation (with $250 minimum);
-- An injunction prohibiting violation during the court action;
-- The right to stay; and
-- Reasonable attorney fees and costs.
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.
The facts you give are pretty outrageous and give rise to a possibly serious forcible entry and forcible detainer causes of action, a wrongful eviction and breach of contract action, injunctive relief, and maybe even tort emotional distress damages. In more than 25 years of unlawful detainer practice (landlord exclusively), this is the first time I have encountered a fact situation like this. Most landlords know better. Depending upon the amount of actual damages you suffered, you may want to file a superior court action, although the small claims limit of $10,000 may be high enough to compensate you. There may be even more damages in rent controlled districts. Definitely you should consult with a good attorney in your area.