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.

If you do not have a lease or written agreement with your roommate or landlord, your claim may already be going down the drain.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.

Dave’s here to answer your questions every Wednesday, so send them to him at tenant@sfappeal.com

Dave Crow is an attorney who specializes in San Francisco landlord tenant law. However, the opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author, do not constitute legal advice, and the information is general in nature. Consult the advice of an attorney for any specific problem. You understand that no attorney-client relationship will exist with Dave Crow or his firm, Crow & Rose unless they have agreed to represent you. You should not respond to this site with any information that you believe is highly confidential.

the author

Dave Crow is an attorney who specializes in San Francisco landlord tenant law. However, the opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author, do not constitute legal advice, and the information is general in nature. Consult the advice of an attorney for any specific problem. You understand that no attorney-client relationship will exist with Dave Crow or his firm, Crow & Rose unless they have agreed to represent you. You should not respond to this site with any information that you believe is highly confidential.

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  • Jim

    Seems odd that the landlord can’t articulate his position, saying something like “get your deposit from your former roommate” or something.

    Civil Code 1950.5 provides for statutory damages of up to twice the amount of the deposit assuming a judge feels there’s been a bad-faith retention. The amount “that a landlord wrongfully withholds” doesn’t enter into the equation. So, if there’s bad faith the max penalty for that is up to double the deposit regardless of whether the LL made a partial refund…

  • Jim

    Seems odd that the landlord can’t articulate his position, saying something like “get your deposit from your former roommate” or something.

    Civil Code 1950.5 provides for statutory damages of up to twice the amount of the deposit assuming a judge feels there’s been a bad-faith retention. The amount “that a landlord wrongfully withholds” doesn’t enter into the equation. So, if there’s bad faith the max penalty for that is up to double the deposit regardless of whether the LL made a partial refund…

  • Eve Batey

    Oh, Jim. You are always so eager to offer your stance on tenant issues, perhaps you should go into that area of law instead of just commenting on articles on the topic! From what I understand from Dave, there are many tenants in the City in need of help. Perhaps you can be the one to prove Beth wrong.

  • Eve Batey

    Oh, Jim. You are always so eager to offer your stance on tenant issues, perhaps you should go into that area of law instead of just commenting on articles on the topic! From what I understand from Dave, there are many tenants in the City in need of help. Perhaps you can be the one to prove Beth wrong.

  • Jim

    Not really a stance, more like a DYN correction suggestion. Here’s the shortest non-PDF URL I could find about “twice the amount of the security”. Lots of attorneys make this mistake.

    http://74.125.155.132/search?q=cache:1eBzye8EI9YJ:absoluteca.websitetoolbox.com/post%3Fid%3D3245026+%22may+subject+the+landlord+or+the+landlord%27s+successors+in+interest+to+statutory+damages+of+up+to+twice+the+amount+of+the+security,+in+addition+to+actual+damages&cd=5&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

    I’m active. Sure, send ’em on over…

  • Jim

    Not really a stance, more like a DYN correction suggestion. Here’s the shortest non-PDF URL I could find about “twice the amount of the security”. Lots of attorneys make this mistake.

    http://74.125.155.132/search?q=cache:1eBzye8EI9YJ:absoluteca.websitetoolbox.com/post%3Fid%3D3245026+%22may+subject+the+landlord+or+the+landlord%27s+successors+in+interest+to+statutory+damages+of+up+to+twice+the+amount+of+the+security,+in+addition+to+actual+damages&cd=5&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

    I’m active. Sure, send ’em on over…

  • bukola

    I am an international student and came into the country at 16. I got an apartment at 17 and was not given a lease. Since I did not know any better, I did not question it. My rent was $450 and my security deposit was $900. When I left, my landlord did not give it back to me because he claimed the room was damaged by water. the water stains happened when it rained into my room, which we called him to fix. i moved out in august 2010. do i have a case? and if i do, what do i do.

  • bukola

    I am an international student and came into the country at 16. I got an apartment at 17 and was not given a lease. Since I did not know any better, I did not question it. My rent was $450 and my security deposit was $900. When I left, my landlord did not give it back to me because he claimed the room was damaged by water. the water stains happened when it rained into my room, which we called him to fix. i moved out in august 2010. do i have a case? and if i do, what do i do.