In landlord-tenant law, a warranty of habitability is implied in a residential lease, see Green v. Superior Court, (1974) 10 Cal.3d 616 [111 Cal.Rptr. 704]. The law imposes certain duties on a landlord to maintain the premises in habitable condition. Failure to do so, such as providing adequate weatherproofing, available heat, water and electricity, and clean, sanitary and structurally safe premises, may be legal justification for a tenant's defensive acts, such as moving out (even in the middle of a lease), paying less rent, withholding the entire rent until the problem is fixed, making or hiring someone to make necessary repairs and deducting the cost from next month's rent, see Civil Code Section 1942.
Although these restrictions can be burdensome to landlords, they have been put in place by the state legislature and judiciary on the theory that unsophisticated tenants need to be protected from sophisticated disreputable landlords. The law is designed to protect people from being victims of inhabitable dwellings.
I am certainly not advocating that tenants should be forced to live in inhabitable dwellings, but at what price do we ensure tenants are “protected”? I just finished litigating a case against Gwendolyn Smith. I obtained a judgment in favor of my client, Connie Cook, for all back due rent and treble damages in the amount of $49,635.96.
I convinced the Court treble damages were justified based on the theory that Ms. Smith’s actions were malicious, willful, deliberate, and intentional holding over which deprived Ms. Cook of her beneficial use of her property, which she subsequently lost to a short sale. Ms. Smith attempted to defend her actions, including the failure to pay rent for over one year, arguing, inter alia, breach of the warranty of habitability and retaliatory eviction. The defenses available to Ms. Smith made what was designed to be a “summary proceeding” last in excess of fourteen months, which caused my client to lose her home.
Do you think it was proper that Gwendolyn Smith could possess a property for approximately one year and not pay any rent? Read the Press Democrat articles below and let me know your thoughts.