Responding to a California Eviction Complaint
California Eviction Response

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If you are served with an unlawful detainer complaint, you should get legal advice or assistance immediately. Tenant organizations, tenant-landlord programs, housing clinics, legal aid organizations, or private attorneys can provide you with advice, and assistance if you need it

 You usually have only five days to respond in writing to the landlord's complaint. You must respond during this time by filing the correct legal document with the Clerk of the court in which the lawsuit was filed. If the fifth day falls on a weekend or holiday, you can file your written response on the following Monday or non-holiday. Typically, a tenant responds to a landlord's complaint by filing a written "answer." (You can get a copy of a form to use for filing an answer from the Clerk of Court's office.)

You may have a legal defense to the landlord's complaint. If so, you must state the defense in a written answer and file your written answer with the Clerk of Court by the end of the fifth day. Otherwise, you will lose any defenses that you may have. Some typical defenses that a tenant might have are listed here as examples:

  • The landlord's three-day notice requested more rent than was actually due.

  • The rental unit violated the implied warranty of habitability.

  • The landlord filed the eviction action in retaliation for the tenant exercising a tenant right or because the tenant complained to the building inspector about the condition of the rental unit.

 Depending on the facts of your case, there are other legal responses to the landlord's complaint that you might file instead of an answer. For example, if you believe that your landlord did not properly serve the summons and the complaint, you might file a Motion to Quash Service of Summons. If you believe that the complaint has some technical defect or does not properly allege the landlord's right to evict you, you might file a Demurrer. It is important that you obtain advice from a lawyer before you attempt to use these procedures.

 If you don't file a written response to the landlord's complaint by the end of the fifth day, the court will enter a default judgment in favor of the landlord. A default judgment allows the landlord to obtain a writ of possession (see Writ of Possession), and may also award the landlord unpaid rent, damages and court costs.

The Clerk of Court will ask you to pay a filing fee when you file your written response. The filing fee typically is about $106. However, if you can't afford to pay the filing fee, you can request that the Clerk allow you to file your response without paying the fee (that is, you can request a waiver of the fee). An application form for a fee waiver, called an "Application for Waiver of Court Fees and Costs," can be obtained from the Clerk of Court.

After you have filed your written answer to the landlord's complaint, the Clerk of Court will mail to both you and the landlord a notice of the time and place of the trial. If you don't appear in court, a default judgment will be entered against you.

Eviction of "unnamed occupants" Sometimes, people who are not parties to the rental agreement or lease move into the rental unit with the tenant or after the tenant leaves, but before the unlawful detainer lawsuit is filed. When a landlord thinks that these "occupants" might claim a legal right to possess the rental unit, the landlord may seek to include them as defendants in the eviction action, even if the landlord doesn't know who they are. 

In this case, the landlord will tell the process server to serve the occupants with a Prejudgment Claim of Right to Possession form at the same time that the eviction summons and complaint are served on the tenants who are named defendants. See additional discussion of "unnamed occupants" and Claim of Right to Possession forms.

Information from the California  Consumer Affairs Guide 2003 Edition With 2004 Updates

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