Sue For Security Deposit Or SOL?

by | Oct 28, 2009 | Security Deposits

I need to sue my former landlord, who I believe held my deposit on an old apartment in bad faith.

I paid $950 for standard security plus a pet deposit on 7/7/07. I was forced to move out on 9/30/07 by my roommate at the time, and had given the landlord more than 30 days notice. However, the landlord refused to return my deposit on the many occasions that I demanded it, with no explanation. I have even attempted to contact the main management company with no luck.

I believe it is a 2-year statute of limitations, but from what date is this calculated? I have several different dates in mind – my move-out date, the 21-day period in which they are required by law to refund, or when I sent the first official demand letter (10/28/07). This has been an incredible hassle and I really want to get my money back – is it still possible?

I get very pissed off when landlords steal tenants’ security deposits. But thinking about statutes of limitation is a total righteous indignation buzz kill. Your question is still a good one because it illustrates that you can’t just sit on your rights because you may lose them.

You mention that your roommate forced you to move out. If the roommate continued to live in the unit, then the landlord had no obligation to return your portion of the security deposit because, as far as he was concerned, the unit was still governed by the existing lease. The landlord does not have to refund the security deposit until the lease is extinguished when everybody moves out. If this is the case, your beef is with your former roommate, not the landlord. There are other possible scenarios that we don’t have space to cover and you should seek specific advice.

Security deposits in California are governed by Civil Code §1950.5. The statute of limitations begins to run when the claim “accrues.” In security deposit cases, the claim accrues on the 22nd day after you move out because the landlord has 21 days to refund.

There is a two-year statute of limitation on claims for the breach of an oral contract. If you do not have a lease or written agreement with your roommate or landlord, your claim may already be going down the drain. Speak to a lawyer immediately and/or file it!

Generally, one has three years to sue for a liability created by statute which could include security deposit actions since they are governed by specific statute like Civil Code §1950.5. It is unlikely that a court would find that this can apply to an oral lease because any action on the lease would be barred after two years. On the other hand, the statute of limitation for a written lease is four years.

Civil Code §1950.5 provides for statutory damages of twice the amount that a landlord wrongfully withholds. In other words if your landlord or roommate kept your dough without any reason you could sue for $950.00 plus $1,900.00 for a total of $2,850.00. It is likely that you would lose the right to collect those damages, but not the original amount, if you had a written lease and you sued the landlord after the three-year limitation for a statutory claim. After four years you’re SOL.

If you are a San Francisco tenant there are two websites that you should bookmark forever in your browser: the San Francisco Rent Board and the San Francisco Tenants Union. There are many other great tenants’ services and resources out there, but between the Rent Board and the TU, you can cover just about everything. The Rent Board site is a treasure trove of general and San Francisco specific information. The Tenants Union site is also very complete, but the best thing about them is they will counsel you about the specific facts of your case and light a fire under your ass to do something about it.

Call the Tenant Lawyers now for a free consultation.
(415) 552-9060