A recent article on Canna Law Blog touched on aspects of the landlord/tenant relationship that have been taking center stage in the marijuana policy debate in states where recreational marijuana or medical marijuana has been legalized. The article correctly provided a detailed overview of eviction actions as they apply to marijuana dispensaries and importantly focused on the specific laws and regulations that govern commercial tenancies. As marijuana dispensaries pop up throughout the United States, a multitude of legal issues will arise with them. For example, are all marijuana contracts illegal as contrary to public policy? In other words, given that marijuana is not yet legal at the federal level, are people who contract with marijuana dispensaries forming an illegal, unenforceable contract? These questions will be addressed in articles to come.
For now, I will focus on one specific contract: the tenancy lease. Many articles have correctly analyzed issues arising out of commercial tenancies (such as dispensaries). While some articles have accurately indicated that commercial evictions are often based on allegations of “illegal activity,” many have improperly classified the issues as applicable to all landlord and tenant relationships. I intend to set the record straight.
This article is part two of a mini-series that examines the substantive aspects of eviction actions filed against tenants who use marijuana. It will provide tenants with a detailed description of the arguments a landlord may make in an eviction action for marijuana use.
Part one gave tenants some background on their right to a jury trial and encouraged tenants to use this right to leverage negotiations in their favor. Over the past two years of both attending court to assist in client representation and observing the unlawful detainer calendar on a weekly basis, I have seen only ONE defendant request a jury trial. The judge in that case firmly declared that he would never deny a defendant’s right to a trial by jury. I was motivated to write the last article because the judge’s statements caused a change in the landlord attorney’s attempt to reach an agreement and negotiate the case. The landlord attorney walked back and forth between the defendant and his client in an attempt to get them to reach an agreement so as to avoid the lengthy (and might I add, expensive) trial.
The goal of this article is to provide tenants with additional leverage in settlement negotiations. As described in the pervious article, there are many benefits to settlement such as: reduced expenses, reduced stress, privacy, predictability, saved time, and (perhaps most importantly) flexibility with regards to the outcome. While a judgment may be legally correct, the outcome may not always be fair to both tenants as one will ultimately end up with nothing (other than a hefty attorney bill). Settlements allow for both sides to potentially reach terms that are mutually beneficial. Ultimately, this article will provide tenants with information that, if used in negotiations, will result in fair outcomes.
First, I will examine the specific laws that allow a landlord to begin an eviction action. Second, I will explain what the laws mean for a tenant and how a landlord may use the law against a marijuana user. And third, I will lay out the potential arguments to be raised by the tenant.
Disclaimer: This post is intended to provide general information about your rights as a tenant. It should not be understood to provide legal advice. Should you receive any court documents, please contact an attorney regarding your particular issue.
The Law: Evictions in General
As discussed in my previous articles, an unlawful detainer action (eviction action) is the process by which a landlord may legally evict a tenant. Evictions arise for many reasons. Perhaps the most common are non-payment of rent and breach of the lease agreement.
Under California law, and for the purposes of this article, a landlord is a person who owns a residential rental unit. The landlord rents the unit to a tenant for that tenant to live in. The only person or entity that has standing to evict a tenant is the owner of the property. As discussed earlier, the landlord may evict tenants for their actions as well as their guests’ actions. In most instances, a tenant’s guests are, in the eyes of the law, an extension of the tenant named on the lease agreement. Unlike standing, where only the landlord may begin the eviction action, if a tenant’s guest is smoking marijuana on the premises, the law views this as if the tenant himself is the one smoking marijuana.
What Gives Rise to an Unlawful Detainer Action?
Eviction actions in California are governed by the California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1161(3). This section provides that a tenant who has failed to perform a condition or covenant of the lease agreement is guilty of unlawful detainer if the tenant has been served with a “3-Day Notice.” In other words, a landlord who suspects that a tenant is using marijuana in his unit may begin the eviction process by serving a “3-Day Notice.”
- Be in writing;
- Say the full name of the tenant or tenants;
- Have the address of the rental property;
- Say what the tenant did to violate the lease or rental agreement; and
- Say the tenant has the chance to fix the problem or move out in 3 days.
Tenants who have been served with a “three day notice” should make sure that it complies with the statutory requirements. Failure to comply with any of these requirements will render the entire case moot and force the landlord to reissue the notice until it complies with all the requirements. Courts have given the requirements of Section 1161(3) strict interpretations. This means that the landlord must meet all the requirements and that if he fails to meet these requirements (even slightly) courts must rule in favor of the tenant. For example, where a landlord fails to include the total amount of rent due in a “3-Day Notice,” courts will generally require the notice to be corrected and served again.
If the landlord files an eviction action based on a faulty notice, they will have wasted approximately three weeks in court proceedings only to show up to court and be told that they will need to serve the tenant with an adequate notice. This means more time for the tenant to remain on the premises and to try to negotiate with the landlord.
Given the fact that most (if not all) lease agreements include a “no smoking provision,” using medical or recreational marijuana in a rental unit is likely to constitute a violation of a tenant’s lease agreement. Therefore, if a lease agreement prohibits smoking, Section 1161(3) allows a landlord to serve the much-dreaded “3-Day Notice” and begin the eviction process. However, at this point, the tenant is not yet “guilty” of unlawful detainer.
Failure to Perform a Covenant or Condition of the Lease Agreement
Tenants should review their lease agreement to verify that the lease agreement does in fact include such a provision. If a lease agreement fails to prohibit smoking, this specific argument may not be used against the tenant. The reason for this is that a tenant cannot be in breach of a lease provision that does not exist in their lease agreement.
It’s important for tenants to be aware that a landlord has, at his disposal, many other arguments that he may raise in a marijuana eviction case. For example, violations of implied or express covenants, such as creating a nuisance, possession of an illegal substance, or using the unit to carry out illegal activity, are all grounds for a landlord to initiate the eviction process. Unlike the “no-smoking” provision, these violations exist regardless of whether they were expressly included in the given lease agreement. Landlords have an unconditional [statutory] right to raise these arguments. Likewise, tenants have a duty to comply with them.
When is a Tenant “Guilty” of Unlawful Detainer?
Within the context of the “no-smoking” provision, using marijuana in an apartment is a breach of the lease agreement. This breach allows the eviction process to begin; however, it does not necessarily mean that a tenant is guilty of unlawful detainer. Despite the law’s language favoring landlords, a landlord that decides to pursue an eviction action still bears the burden of proving that the tenant has committed an unlawful detainer. Ashlers v. Barrett, 4 Cal.App158, 160 (1906).
How does a landlord prove that a tenant is “guilty” of unlawful detainer?
In order to prove that a tenant is “guilty” of unlawful detainer the landlord must show: 1.) that the marijuana usage at issue in the case constitutes a material breach and 2.) that the tenant has failed to vacate the unit within the notice period. Given the fact that the second element is very easy to prove, this article will focus on the first element.
First, the landlord must have proof that a tenant in fact breached the lease agreement by committing a specific act that the lease agreement prohibits. Where marijuana is involved, it may be based on testimony from someone who observed the tenant using marijuana. Unless a landlord or neighbor can testify under oath that he saw the tenant using marijuana, the landlord will likely run into problems trying to prove that the tenant actually used marijuana on the premises.
Many landlords don’t live on the same premises as their tenants; therefore, complaints about marijuana are likely to come from other tenants who claim that they can smell pot. This argument is weak, primarily because it is difficult to show that the smell is actually coming from one particular unit (assuming the tenant hasn’t taken it upon himself to “hot box” the apartment unit). In an eviction action that does not involve an eyewitness, the tenant will likely be required to testify under oath. Tenants should be aware of the consequences of lying under oath. If a tenant has indeed used marijuana on the premises, it’s in their best interest to try to negotiate a settlement. However, a tenant who has used marijuana on the premises can use this lack of evidence to negotiate additional time to move out or possibly enter into a probationary tenancy.
Second, the landlord must prove that the marijuana usage in that particular instance constitutes a “material breach.” Courts have declared that breaches that are only technical or trivial (as opposed to “material”) will not support forfeiture in an unlawful detainer action in an unlawful detainer action. See McNeece v. Wood, 204 Cal 280, 285 (1928). Hence, even if a tenant has been seen smoking marijuana in their rental unit, the tenant is not necessarily guilty of unlawful detainer unless the particular instance is so severe that it constitutes a “material breach.” For example, smoking marijuana in a rental unit every day is very likely to constitute a material breach. However, a single time that involved a guest is not likely to constitute a material breach because most courts recognize that one instance is not significant enough to result in an eviction.
While not covered extensively in this article, tenants should keep in mind that they have additional defenses such as substantial compliance with a covenant. Knight v. Black, Cal. App. 3d. (1985) Additionally, courts have not drawn a clear line between a trivial breach and a material breach. Thus, even where a given breach is deemed “material” the tenant may still argue that enforcement would be unconscionable and inequitable.
My next article will specifically look at marijuana evictions as they arise in public housing. As discussed in a previous article, while landlords are required to follow the eviction process requirements for all tenancies, public housing tenants stand to lose much more. I will also analyze the potential effects of a recently proposed HUD regulation.
Remember, this is an article, not an attorney. If the above matters apply to you please seek legal advice from you local Legal Aid or pro-bono attorney.