Preserving Your Tenant’s Right to a Jury Trial

If you’re a tenant involved in an eviction action, you’ll probably want a jury trial.

As I wrote in an earlier post, “Your Right to a Jury Trial,” jury members may be tenants themselves and can be more attuned to the difficulties of being a tenant.

But you can’t take this tenant right for granted.  In an unlawful detainer (eviction) case in Los Angeles County, a superior court judge ruled, based on the wording of the California Civil Code, that the tenants could not get a jury trial.

Fortunately, the case was appealed and the decision was reversed. The tenants got the right to have their trial decided by a jury.

The background

The case Guttman v. Chiazor was just filed by the court on September 8, 2017. It’s a complicated case with several legal issues. Here’s a summarized version with the important details.

The landlord filed a complaint in September of 2014 based on a three-day notice to pay rent or quit. The complaint alleged the tenants had not paid the August and September rent in 2014.

Chiazor and Pascascio, the two tenants, filed a reply that their rent was excessive because of a breach of the warranty of habitability. On a form, they checked the following boxes: “hole(s) in walls/floor/carpet,” “missing/torn window screens,” “infestation of roaches/rodents/insects/vermin,” “defective electrical /wiring,” and “mold.”

They answered the complaint by using the legal term “affirmative defense.” In other words, their answer stated basically, yes, the landlord was right, they had NOT paid the rent, because the rent was excessive given these issues.

And then no jury trial

As the case wound its way through the court system, many complications developed. Then in March of 2015, the landlord filed another complaint for unlawful detainer.

The tenants also replied with affirmative defenses, again saying the landlord was right but there was a breach of the warranty of habitability and the amount of rent demanded in the notice was excessive.

The tenants, in addition to the previous inhabitability issues, ticked other boxes on the complaint form, including “falling plaster/peeling paint,” “lack of/inadequate heat,” “lack of /inadequate hot water,” “missing/broken windows,” “defective/leaking plumbing,” and a few others.

The tenants also checked the form boxes asserting the lessor had breached the warranty of habitability because the conditions existed and were not fixed for 60 days as per the California Civil Code.

Furthermore, they asserted the landlord was illegally demanding rent because the inhabitable conditions existed for at least 35 days after a public agency gave the landlord notice of the conditions that needed repair.

This time, the only legal issue in dispute was the breach of the warranty of habitability. The landlord said the court should conduct a trial without a jury, and pointed to specific wording in the Civil Code that said “the court” shall determine whether a breach occurred.  “Court,” the landlord argued, meant a judge, not a jury.

The judge agreed. No jury trial.

The judge found no breach of the warranty of habitability and judgement was entered in favor of the landlord.

The appellant court takes a look

Fortunately, this decision was appealed. The Appellate Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court took a second look at the case.  Appellate divisions usually consist of three superior court judges.  Therefore, the appellate division judges are reviewing the decisions of their colleagues.

One part of the case the appellate court focused on was the use of the word “court” in the Civil Code, and what that exactly meant. The appellate court examined whether the tenants have a statutory right to a jury trial in the case of a breach of the warranty of habitability.

The landlord had argued the definition of the word “court” meant “judge” based on the wording in Civil Code section 1174.2, the parts of the code that address breaches of the warranty of habitability.

In forming their opinion, the appellate court took into consideration Civil Code section 1171, which deals with summary proceedings for obtaining possession real property. The language of this section states, “Whenever an issue of fact is presented by the pleadings, it must be tried by a jury, unless such jury be waived as in other cases.”

The appellate court also looked at legislative intent, that is, what legislators intended when they wrote and voted on the statues. The court found legislators did not intend to deny tenants of the right to a jury trial in the case of a breach of the warranty of habitability.

The appellate court noted, based on their conclusion, the only way to reverse this error was to have a new trial. “Denying defendants their statutory right to trial by jury requires reversal of the judgment.”

Up here in the Bay Area

While this case is out of Los Angeles County, not the Bay Area, it forms legal support for tenant’s access to a jury trial in the case of a breach of the warranty of habitability. Should this problem come up in my future cases, I would refer to it in my arguments.

I’m glad this decision helps tenants get jury trials. As a tenant, you want your case evaluated by others who might be able to understand what it’s like to be a tenant. You might have a better outcome.

Do you think you have a breach of the warranty of habitability in your home? Are you uncertain what to do next? You should consider talking to an experienced tenant attorney who can help you with your specific issue.

Know your rights. Protect yourself.

 

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Mary Catherine Wiederhold

Tenant Attorney
1458 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94109

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