UPDATE: Gov. Brown signs bill aimed at sealing more eviction court records

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CAA amendments target unscrupulous attorneys

The state’s unlawful detainer “masking” law has been in place for over 20 years, introduced by the California Apartment Association to prevent unethical eviction-delay firms from accessing court records to help tenants prolong or avoid eviction.

The law provides that unlawful detainer cases are not available to the public for 60 days after the filing of an unlawful detainer action. After that time, the case becomes public if the tenant failed to beat the eviction during the initial 60 days.

Assemlyman David Chiu

Assemlyman David Chiu

During this legislative session, Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, persuaded fellow lawmakers to change the law, citing an inordinate number of tenants who had been “blacklisted” from rental housing after court records created the perception they had been evicted, when they hadn’t been.

Chiu’s AB 2819, signed by the governor Tuesday, Sept. 13, will change the law to address situations where a property owner files an unlawful detainer action but does not serve the tenant or does not proceed with the eviction, likely because the tenant paid the rent or the landlord and the tenant resolved their disagreement. In some cases, the tenant has no knowledge that an eviction action has been filed. Oftentimes, the landlord won’t dismiss the case because of the cost, so the filing is later available to the public and picked up by the unlawful detainer reporting companies. That reporting gives the appearance that the tenant was evicted, when it’s not the case. Chiu demonstrated the same situation in foreclosure cases in which tenants had moved before the bank served eviction actions.

Under Chiu’s bill, these cases will be masked, meaning they’ll remain out of public view, unless the landlord wins the case in 60 days or wins at trial.

Working with Chiu, CAA successfully garnered amendments to the bill to help address challenges faced by CAA members with existing eviction cases in which a tenant, who is represented by an unscrupulous attorney, demands the case be masked, notwithstanding the outcome of the case.  These attorneys currently make this demand to force the plaintiff-landlord to settle the case and allow the tenant to leave without payment of the past-due rent. In these situations, a landlord who refuses early on to mask the case is threatened with a drawn-out court action.

As requested by CAA, the amendments do the following:

  • If a plaintiff (landlord) believes that a defendant (tenant) or the tenant’s attorney has a pattern of defending unlawful detainer cases by making accusations (such as substandard housing or other untrue statements), the landlord or his/her attorney can gain access to past unlawful detainer actions (even if they were masked to the general public) to demonstrate this unethical practice. Currently, those cases are not available to property owners or their attorneys.
  • If the landlord wins at trial, even if that trial takes place after 60 days, the court must order the case unmasked and available to the general public. While landlords do not like to go to court, many tenant attorneys demand a jury trial.

CAA strongly encourages landlords to do their due diligence when it comes to screening a potential new tenant. Don’t rely on your gut instinct. Run a credit check, call previous landlords, and even ask the tenant for proof of payment to a previous landlord or mortgage company.

Related content:

  • Op/ed: Assemblyman Chui: Don’t blacklist tenants for asserting rights (Sacramento Bee)

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