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Landlord/Tenant UNlawful Detainer (UD) Overview

This page tells you about:  

  1. UD Introduction
  2. What is an Unlawful Detainer Action?
  3. When can I start an Unlawful Detainer Action?
  4. What CAN’T an Unlawful Detainer do?
  5. What other types of actions are related to Unlawful Detainer actions?
  6. What if you are the tenant?  

Also, see this flyer with UD Resources .

Find forms on the State Court Forms web page .

  1. Introduction

    Landlords and tenants can have disagreements. If they can’t work it out, they may end up in court. This section doesn’t talk about everything a landlord and tenant may disagree about. We mostly talk about who has the right to live at the property.

    These cases are called "unlawful detainer" cases. Unlawful detainer cases are complicated. Talk to a lawyer to make sure all your rights are protected and that everyone does what they’re supposed to do. Look at the list of other places to get help below.
  2. What is an Unlawful Detainer Action?

    • Evict someone from their home or workplace:

      An Unlawful Detainer action is a special court proceeding. It’s a legal way to evict someone from the place where they live or work. This usually happens when a tenant stays after the lease is up, the lease is canceled, or the landlord thinks the tenant hasn't paid their rent.
    • Disagreement has to be about the tenant moving out:

      An Unlawful Detainer decides if the landlord can take the property back from the tenant. The landlord is the plaintiff. The tenant is the defendant. If the defendant moves out before trial, the case is dismissed or, can be changed to a regular civil action.

    • Only the Sheriff can physically evict someone:

      If the landlord wins, they’ll get a “judgment for possession”. The tenant has to move out. The sheriff can enforce this judgment. This means the sheriff can physically make the tenant leave.

    • You can’t evict someone yourself:

      You can’t evict someone yourself. It’s against the law. Only the sheriff can evict someone. That’s why you need an Unlawful Detainer. For example: Even if a tenant is months behind on the rent, the landlord can’t:
      • Evict the tenant
      • Get rid of the tenant’s things
      • Lock the tenant out,
      • Cut off the water or electricity, or
      • Remove outside windows or doors.

      To legally evict the tenant, the landlord has to:  

      • Serve the tenant with a notice,
      • Wait for the notice to end, and
      • File an Unlawful Detainer action if the tenant doesn’t do what the notice asks.
    • Expedited Proceeding:

      An Unlawful Detainer case is really fast. Usually, the defendant has 5 court days to file a response. You can have a trial 20 days after that. In general, the defendant can’t file a cross complaint. But, they can say that the plaintiffs acted badly as a defense.
  3. When can I start an Unlawful Detainer Action?

    • When the Landlord-Tenant relationship ends
    • When a different type of relationship ends
    • When the property is sold

    • When the Landlord-Tenant Relationship ends:

      The most common reason to start an Unlawful Detainer is that the relationship between a landlord and tenant ends. This happens when:  
      • The tenant doesn’t leave after the lease ends.  
      • There’s a month-to-month lease, and the tenant doesn’t move out after a 30-day, 60-day or 90-day notice to quit (move out).  
      • The tenant doesn’t pay rent and doesn’t move out after they get a 3-day notice to pay rent or quit.  
      • The tenant doesn’t move out after they break a part of the lease agreement and they don’t do what the 3-day notice says to fix the violation or move out.  
      • The tenant gets a 3-day notice to move out for "committing waste" or a "nuisance" or using the property to do something illegal and doesn’t move out.  
      • The landlord accepts the tenant’s “offer to vacate the premises” but the tenant doesn’t leave.  
    • Ending a different relationship:

      • Employer,
      • Master,
      • Licensor, or
      • Principal

      Can use an Unlawful Detainer to evict an:

      • Employee,
      • Servant,
      • Licensee, or
      • Agent.

      You can file an action if they don’t move out after they stop working there.

    • Evict the old owner after the property is sold:

      An Unlawful Detainer is also for when the person who buys property at:

      • An execution sale,
      • Sale by foreclosure or
      • Sale under a power of sale in a mortgage or deed of trust.
  4. What CAN’T an Unlawful Detainer do?

    • No security deposits:

      An Unlawful Detainer can’t solve fights about damages or security deposits.
    • No cross complaints:

      You can’t file a cross complaint in Unlawful Detainer actions. The defendant has to file a separate action if they want to get money back from the plaintiff.
    • No future rental losses:

      The court can’t give you damages for rent you lost after the judgment. For example: There’s a judgment against the defendant. It takes the sheriff a week to evict the defendant. The plaintiff has to file a separate action to get back the rent lost in that week.

  5. What other types of actions are related to Unlawful Detainer actions?

    • Forcible Entry or Detainer:

      Forcible entry is:

      1) Breaking open doors or windows, or using violence or terror to get into a property, or
      2) Going in peacefully. Then, kicking out the person staying there by force, threats, or menacing conduct.

      Forcible detainer is:

      1) Using force, or by threats of violence, to keep a property. Or
      2) Going in illegally at night or when the person who lives there isn’t home. Then, not leaving for at least 5 days.

      A forcible entry or detainer action is a lot like an Unlawful Detainer action. They both focus on who has to move out. They are both heard quickly.
    • Action to get back Storage Space:

      Rented storage units are commercial property. But, a different part of the law covers storage units. You can’t use an Unlawful Detainer for storage units. See California Self-Service Storage Facility Act set forth in Bus. & Prof. Code 21700 et seq.

    • Ejectment:

      An ejectment is a regular civil action. You can get land back. And you can get money damages from the people staying there illegally. This isn’t as good as an Unlawful Detainer because it’s not done quickly. It’s usually for when the defendant can say they own the land.
    • Quiet Title:

      A quiet title action is a regular civil action. It says what a landlord’s legal rights are for a specific piece of land. It’s not as good as an Unlawful Detainer because it’s not quick. A quiet title action is usually for people who are fighting over who the owner is.  
  6. What if you are the tenant?

    See the "For the Tenant" page on answering a UD action.

More Self-Help Tenant/Landlord/UD pages on this website:

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