Saturday, February 26, 2011

What rights does a tenant have when the landlord cuts off utility services?

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 cutting off utility services to a residential tenant for the purpose of terminating a tenancy. Landlords who 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 access to water and electricity.

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, 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 request that the landlord respond to the tenant 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 even if the tenant has had a checkered past in his or her time in residence, a landlord cannot terminate services in an attempt to force the tenant to move. Any tenant who has had utility services cut off by a malicious landlord should not hesitate to contact an attorney right away.   

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Debt Collectors and Their Unlawful Practices

Debt Collection Calls - Tracking Suspicious Phone Calls from Debt Collectors

Under federal law, debt collectors cannot call you on your cell phone.  If you are receiving harassing phone calls from someone demanding that you pay them on a debt, you have a right to make them stop.  Unfortunately, even after you tell them that are calling a mobile phone and that they don't have your permission to call you, many debt collectors simply ignore you and keep calling anyway.

If you are receiving unwanted calls from debt collectors, click on the link above, and place the number into their search engine to find out which debt collector is calling.  Then, give us a call to discuss your legal options.   Take a look at our website to get our contact information.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bed Bugs & Tenants Rights

I have been hearing a lot about bed bugs in the news lately.  As a tenants' rights lawyer, I hear often from people who wonder what to do when the property they rent is infested with bed bugs.  They are terrible.  I have yet to meet anyone who has had to deal with a bed bug infestation that wasn't deeply effected and distraught by the experience.  If you have leased an apartment or house and upon moving in find that you are waking up with bite marks, then it's important to educate yourself about whether the property has bed bugs.  If it does, you need to act quickly.   There is a lot of good information available on the internet about bed bugs.  I like this blog because it has a lot of information and is updated fairly often.  

If you are satisfied that it is bed bugs that are afflicting you, make sure that you begin to keep careful records of your experience.  Take photos. Get pictures of the bite marks, of the tracks left by the bugs, the skins that are shed by the growing nymphs, and anything else that shows the presence of the bugs.  Take notes of any problems caused by the infestation.  You will quickly find that an important part of containing and escaping a bed bug infested property is throwing out furniture and other personal property where they live.  Those items that you don't throw away need to be quarantined for up to 18 months.  These consequences are inconvenient and expensive, but unfortunately, if you don't keep good records of the costs of replacing these items, it will be hard to get any compensation from your landlord or management company.

Keep a journal of the timeline of events with specific dates and times.  If you have new bites when you awake, make an entry explaining how many bites there are and their location.  When you make a complaint to the landlord or the management make sure that you do it in writing.  Your complaint should have a date and clearly identify the property address.  Make a notation in your journal of any conversation that you have about the complaint, and make sure to keep copies of all the complaints that you make.  If you live in an apartment complex, ask other tenants about who lived in the unit before you moved in.  Ask if they ever made complaints about bed bugs, or if anyone else in the complex has also had problems with bed bugs.  Make entries in your journal about these conversations.

It's important to also understand that your landlord will not be happy to hear any mention of problems with bed bugs, and may quickly act to try to cause problems for you.  There's no reason to expect that a landlord who is leasing a bed bug infested property will simply admit his or her fault and compensate you for your losses.  More than likely, the landlord will first look to assign the blame to you.

If you have suspicions that your landlord knew that the apartment or house had problems with bed bugs before leasing it, then don't hesitate to talk to a lawyer.  Landlords usually have lawyers.  The smart landlords find good attorneys and consult them often.  Don't make the mistake of just relying on your landlord to take care of the problem without finding out all the relevant information you can, and then speaking to someone who can tell you about your rights and how to assert them.