Q:  My tenant is suing me in small claims court over her security deposit. What are some common reasons why tenants sue Landlords over the security deposit?

Some of the more common reasons a tenant may sue a landlord include:

1)      The landlord fails to provide the tenant with an itemization of the security deposit within 21 days after the tenant vacates the property;

2)      The landlord fails to provide receipts or invoices for repairs or costs of necessary cleanup;

3)      The landlord improperly deducts monies from the security deposit for items beyond cleaning, repairs, and unpaid rent; or

4)      The Landlord wrongly charges for “normal wear and tear.” 

If you believe that you handled your tenant’s security deposit improperly, it may be best to attempt to settle the matter directly with your tenant before going to your small claims court hearing. If you are unsure if you properly handled the security deposit accounting, you should immediately consult an attorney.  

Q: What can I do if my tenant still owes me money after I applied the security deposit to her outstanding balance for unpaid rent and necessary costs to clean and repair the rental unit?

If the security deposit has already been applied to unpaid rent, cleaning, and damages beyond normal wear and tear, and your tenant still owes you money, you can file a claim against the tenant in small claims court. To do this, you will need to prepare for trial by gathering and organizing any documents that are relevant to the case and will help to substantiate your claim. These documents can be items such as photographs of the premises after the tenant vacated, a copy of the lease/rental agreement, the move-in/move-out checklist, copies of all receipts and invoices that support the security deposit deductions. You should also ensure that any witnesses to the damages can appear at court.  

Q: What is the maximum amount that I can be sued for in small claims court if my tenant claims that I didn’t handle the security deposit properly?

As a Landlord, your tenant can sue you for the full amount of the security deposit plus twice that amount if you acted in “bad faith” in handling the security deposit accounting, including improperly deducting monies from the security deposit. However, the total amount of the claim cannot exceed $10,000 as this is the limit for claims made by natural persons. If your tenant wants to recover sums above $10,000, she would need to sue you in a limited or unlimited general civil action.  

Q: Are there any restrictions in small claims court on what type of claims I can assert against my tenant when filing a counter-claim? What is the maximum amount allowable that I can sue my tenant for?   

Although there aren’t any restrictions on the claims you may make, the maximum amount you may sue your tenant for in small claims court is $10,000. You can sue your tenant for unpaid rent, costs, and/or expenses incurred to restore the property back to the condition it was in prior to your tenant moving in less “normal wear and tear”. In addition, you may ask for late fees, NSF charges, and any other monetary claim you may have against the tenant based on the lease/rental agreement entered into with him.   

Q: What happens if I lose on the tenant’s claim, but I win on my counter-claim? Do I have the option to appeal on the tenant’s claim?  

Depending on the amounts awarded by the Judge, more often than not the two amounts will offset each other and a lesser amount will be owed by one of the parties. If you lose on the tenant’s claim, you may appeal it within 30 days of the entry of judgment. However, it is important to remember that when a counter-claim is filed, if either losing party appeals their loss, then both claims will be heard again on appeal.  

Attorney Franco Simone, of the Landlords Legal Center and has been doing evictions for 20 years.  He is also an adjunct law professor at the University of San Diego.  Mr. Simone’s office is open Monday- Friday from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM .-  Tel: 619-235-6180, website: www.landlordslegalcenter.com or email info@landlordslegalcenter.com