If I Sue My Landlord In San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley and I Win, What Do I Get?

The short answer is: three times the amount of money the jury awards you. A unique feature the San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley rent ordinances all share is the tripling of money damages awarded to a tenant who successfully sues his or her landlord for certain violations.

S.F. Admin. Code Section 37.9(f)

Whenever a landlord wrongfully endeavors to recover possession or recovers possession of a rental unit in violation of Sections 37.9 and/or 37.10 as enacted herein, the tenant or Board may institute a civil proceeding for injunctive relief, money damages of not less than three times actual damages, (including damages for mental or emotional distress), and whatever other relief the court deems appropriate.  In the case of an award of damages for mental or emotional distress, said award shall only be trebled if the trier of fact finds that the landlord acted in knowing violation of or in reckless disregard of Section 37.9 or 37.10A herein.  The prevailing party shall be entitled to reasonable attorney's fees and costs pursuant to order of the court.  The remedy available under this Section 37.9(f) shall be in addition to any other existing remedies which may be available to the tenant or the Board.

Oakland Code of Ordinances Section 8.22.370(A)(2)

Whenever a landlord or anyone assisting a landlord wrongfully endeavors to recover possession or recovers possession of a rental unit in violation of Subsection 6(A) [8.22.360 A], the tenant or Board may institute a civil proceeding for injunctive relief, money damages of not less than three times actual damages (including damages for mental or emotional distress), and whatever other relief the court deems appropriate. In the case of an award of damages for mental or emotional distress, said award shall only be trebled if the trier of fact finds that the landlord acted in knowing violation of or in reckless disregard of this ordinance. The prevailing tenant shall be entitled to reasonable attorney's fees and costs pursuant to order of the court.

Berkeley Municipal Code Section 13.76.150(B)

For Violation of Eviction Proceedings. If it is shown in the appropriate court that the event which the landlord claims as grounds to recover possession under Subsection 13.76.130 a.7., Subsection 13.76.130 A.8., Subsection 13.76. 13.76.130 A.9., or Subsection 13.76.130A.10. is not initiated within two months after the tenant vacates the unit, or it is shown the landlord's claim was false or in bad faith, the tenant shall be entitled to regain possession and to actual damages. If the landlord's conduct was willful, the tenant shall be entitled to damages in the amount of $750 or three times the actual damages sustained, whichever is greater.

Particularly when a tenant is wrongfully evicted- whether by landlord harassment or a fraudulent owner/relative move in eviction or other bad act- tripled money damages can make the difference in whether a tenant can bounce back and continue living in one of the most expensive areas in the world. Most tenants are surprised to discover these awards can be quite substantial.

As an example, take Jack and Jill who live up the hill- Telegraph Hill- in a rent-controlled apartment. They moved into their unit in 2006. In 2016, their building sold to new owners. Jack and Jill’s rent is $2,000 per month. The new owners served Jack and Jill with an owner move in eviction notice, causing Jack and Jill to move out by the required deadline. As it turns out, the new owners never move into Jack and Jill’s unit, but instead re-rent it to new tenants at the much higher price of $4,000. Jack and Jill sue the new owners for wrongful eviction. In such a case, the lion’s share of money damages Jack and Jill may be awarded at trial is determined by what is called the “rent differential calculation of damages.”

The use of the rent-differential formula to calculate money damages for the loss of a rent-controlled unit is well established in California: take the market value of the lost unit, minus the contract value, multiplied by how long the tenant would have continued living there. (Castillo v. Friedman (1987) 197 Cal.App.3d Supp. 6.) In the case of Jack and Jill, a likely calculation will be: market value of lost unit ($4,000) minus the contract value ($2,000) multiplied by how long Jack and Jill would have stayed in their unit if the new owners had not committed fraud (at least 10 more years). If Jack and Jill prevail, they will argue their rent differential damages are $240,000.

But because Jack and Jill live in San Francisco, or Oakland or Berkeley for that matter, the calculation does not end there. The Rent Ordinance requires that Jack and Jill’s actual damages of $240,000 be multiplied by three, for a new total of $720,000. This total does not include Jack and Jill’s money damages for emotional distress, out of pocket expenses or attorney fees, all of which are in addition to the rent differential damages.

Most renters in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley know they have a great deal of local legal protections which usually work well to keep them in their homes and free from landlord harassment. But what happens when these protections fail? What recourse do renters have when they vacate their homes as a result of landlord harassment or a fraudulent owner or relative move in eviction? Fortunately, the rent ordinances in these cities level the field for tenants who fall victim to wrongful evictions. Imposing serious financial repercussions on bad landlords forces all landlords to think twice before breaking the law and serves to further protect the tens of thousands of renters and their families who still occupy their homes and who rely on the protections of the rent ordinances.