The primary legal protection for residential tenants in California who have had their utilities shut off by a landlord is found in Civil Code Section 789.3. This code section prohibits a landlord from shutting off utility services to a residential tenant for the purpose of terminating a tenancy. Landlords who are violate this Section are liable to the tenant for damages in the amount of $100.00 per day for every day the tenant goes without utility service, plus actual damages caused by the loss of utility service, and the tenant's attorney's fees. While the fine of $100.00 per day may not seem like much, it can add up quickly, and this fine does not include actual damages caused by the utility shut off such as the price of eating out when there is no gas or electricity to cook with, food spoiled from lack of refrigeration, the cost of being forced to pay for access to bathing and laundry facilities, and all other costs that a tenant may incur as a result of losing his or her utility services.
It is important that a tenant make a demand that the landlord restore utility service as soon as the water or electricity has been shut off. It is best to make this demand in writing. The letter to the landlord demanding the restoration of utility services should be direct and concise. It is a good idea to contact Legal Aid Society, or a community service organization, or an attorney that represents tenants to assist in writing this letter. If a tenant does not qualify for Legal Aid assistance, and cannot get a private attorney, then he or she should remember a few key points when writing the letter to the landlord demanding restoration of utility services.
1). Make sure that the letter is dated and addressed to the landlord or the landlord's designated agent.
2). The letter must clearly identify the address where the effected tenant lives.
3). The letter must clearly state what utility service has been lost and when the loss of service began.
4). The letter should state the tenant's belief that the loss of service was caused by the landlord for the purpose of terminating the tenancy.
5). The letter should demand that the landlord take all required action to investigate and resolve the problem.
6). The letter should state that if the landlord fails to take action to restore utility services within a reasonable period of time, then the tenant reserves the right to withhold the payment of rent.
7). The letter should state that any communication from the landlord to the tenant regarding the loss of utility services be made in writing.
Make sure that you keep a copy of the signed letter for your records and send it to the landlord via certified mail, so that you can show he or she actually received the letter. The tenant should not make any threats, nor say anything that he or she would not want to repeat in public. If the tenant is forced to bring a lawsuit, in order to have the utility services restored, then the letter may very well become evidence. It is not helpful in court to have a letter that is filled with personal attacks on the landlord, or otherwise shows the tenant in an unfavorable light.
It is my experience that many tenants do not feel comfortable asserting their rights by writing a letter, and often feel some responsibility for the situation. It is important to remember that under the law, there is no reason that justifies a landlord shutting off a tenant's access to utility services. Even if a tenant is behind on the payment of rent, or the utilities, or has a bad relationship with the landlord, this does not excuse terminating utility services. Any tenant who has had utility services cut off by a malicious landlord should not hesitate to contact an attorney.