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Fighting an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit in Orange County | 714-442-9741

Fighting an Unlawful Detainer
Lawsuit in Orange County

Strategies for Success: Fighting an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit in Orange County

Discover effective legal strategies in Fighting an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit in Orange County. Our expert tenant-focused attorneys at Martinez Law Center provide personalized guidance, protecting your rights and ensuring a strong defense. Learn how to navigate the legal process and secure your home.

Fighting an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit in Orange County

Defend Your Home: Unraveling the Fighting an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit in Orange County

Fighting an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit in Orange County, sometimes called evictions, can be scary and confusing. But by learning the basics of California unlawful detainer law and procedure, tenants can effectively defend their rights. This guide will provide key information on the unlawful detainer process and how tenants can respond at each stage. Knowing what to expect can help even the odds in landlord-tenant disputes.

What is an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit?

An unlawful detainer lawsuit is a legal action a landlord can file to evict a tenant from rental property for certain lease violations. Common grounds for unlawful detainer include:

  • Nonpayment of rent
  • Violation of lease terms
  • Staying past the lease expiration
  • Substantial property damage
  • Using the property for illegal activity

If the tenant does not respond properly to the unlawful detainer complaint, the court will likely award possession of the property back to the landlord. The landlord can then obtain a writ of possession to forcibly remove the tenant.

Unlawful detainers move very quickly, so tenants must act fast to avoid default. But tenants who understand the basic procedures can effectively fight eviction, even if they cannot afford an attorney.

Defending Your Rights: Strategies for Fighting an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit in Orange County

An unlawful detainer lawsuit has the following basic steps:

  1. Notice to Quit – Landlord serves the tenant with a notice demanding they correct the lease violation or vacate the premises. Depending on the violation, the notice period may be 3, 30, 60, or 90 days.
  2. Complaint – If tenant fails to comply with notice, the landlord files and serves a summons and an unlawful detainer complaint. This starts a lawsuit.
  3. Response – Tenant has only 5 days to file and serve a written response. Failure to respond properly may result in default judgment against the tenant.
  4. Trial – If the tenant responds, a trial is held within 20 days, during which the landlord must prove his right to evict the tenant.
  5. Judgment: If landlord wins, the tenant has only 5 days to appeal before a writ of possession can be issued to forcibly remove the tenant.

Understanding these key steps puts tenants in the best position to defend an unlawful detainee. But to fully protect their rights, tenants must carefully follow proper procedures at each stage or risk being evicted.

Fighting an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit in Orange County

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Try to Resolve Dispute with Landlord

Before the notice period expires, tenants should attempt good-faith negotiations with the landlord to resolve the alleged lease violation. Especially for minor disputes over lease terms, repairs, or payment plans, compromise may be possible without litigation. But any settlement agreements should be in writing.

Don’t Delay Preparing Your Response

If the dispute remains unresolved when the notice period ends, the landlord may file an unlawful detainee lawsuit. Tenants will have only 5 days to respond in writing, so they should start preparing now. Proper response procedures are covered in the next section.

By taking appropriate action after receiving an eviction notice, tenants can hopefully avoid unlawful detainer litigation. But if a lawsuit is filed, tenants who have laid the groundwork will be ready to defend their rights.

What are the Rules for Responding to an Unlawful Detainer Complaint?

If an unlawful detainer lawsuit is filed and properly served, the tenant must file a written response, called an “answer”, within 5 calendar days, excluding court holidays. The answer must meet strict formatting rules. This quick response deadline is much faster than a typical 30 day response period in civil suits.

Here are key procedures for responding to an unlawful detainer complaint:

Carefully Review the Complaint Documents

The summons and complaint should include important information like factual allegations, lease violations claimed, plaintiff landlord details, description of premises, amount of rent owed, attorney information, and the response filing deadline. Tenants should review thoroughly and confirm receipt dates to calculate the response deadline.

Use the Proper Unlawful Detainer Answer Form

In California, tenants must use Judicial Council Form UD-105 for the answer. This pre-printed form includes check boxes to admit or deny the landlord’s factual allegations and assert any defenses. Tenants should seek legal assistance to ensure proper use of the form. Improper filing may result in immediate default.

Timely Serve and File Answer

Tenants must file the original answer with the court and have a copy personally served on the landlord’s attorney or served by mail within the 5-day deadline. The answer is not deemed properly filed and served unless completed by 11:59 p.m. on the due date. Tenants should keep mailing receipts and proof of service documents.

Assert All Possible Defenses

In the answer, tenants should raise any possible defenses supported by the facts, like improper notice, lease non-compliance by landlord, uninhabitable conditions, payment records, etc. Helpful defenses are covered in a later section. Any defenses not raised in the answer may be waived later.

Request a jury trial if desired.

If tenants want a jury to decide the unlawful detainer lawsuit instead of a judge, they must request a jury trial in the answer form. This requires paying a jury fee deposit. Consulting a lawyer on this decision is wise.

Meeting the tight response deadline and using the proper answer format is critical for tenants defending an unlawful detainee. If done correctly, the answer will get the tenant a trial date and a chance to present defenses. Defaulting means almost certain eviction.

What are Common Defenses in an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit?

Unlawful detainer lawsuits often feel unfairly one-sided in favor of landlords. But tenants have more defense options than they may realize. While outcomes depend on case facts, tenants should consider the following common unlawful detainer defenses:

Improper Notice

Strict notice procedures must be followed before filing unlawful detainer. Defects in giving required notices, like timing, service method, or contents may invalidate the landlord’s case. Tenants should scrutinize notices for any technical errors.

Failure to Comply With Rent Control Ordinances

Landlords in cities with rent control must strictly comply with ordinances protecting tenants. Any misstep in noticing, allowable rent increases, registration requirements, or relocation assistance may undermine eviction.

Landlord Non-Compliance with Warranty of Habitability

Landlords must provide livable rental premises under California law. Serious habitability issues like dangerous conditions, building code violations, or lack of hot water may give tenants a defense against eviction for unpaid rent.


Fighting an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit in Orange County


If landlords are evicting tenants for discriminatory reasons based on protected categories like race, sex, disability, etc., tenants have strong unlawful detainer defenses and other civil rights claims against the landlord.

Retaliation for Asserting Rights

Seeking eviction because a tenant exercised legal rights like requesting repairs, joining a tenant’s union, or complaining of discrimination is unlawful retaliation. This can defeat an unlawful detainer case.

Payment Records Rebut Nonpayment Claims

Meticulous rent payment records can rebut landlord claims of unpaid rent in nonpayment unlawful detainers. Tenants should present receipts, cashed checks, bank records etc. to show rent was actually paid.

Unconscionable Lease Terms

If lease clauses cited as grounds for eviction are grossly unfair to tenants under the circumstances, courts can deem them unenforceable. This prevents the forfeiture of a lease for hyper-technical violations of unreasonable terms.

Equitable Defenses

If evicting someone would be unfair based on the facts, courts may allow equitable defenses like waiver, estoppel, or unclean hands to make things fair between the parties, even if there were technical lease violations.

With some creativity and evidence, tenants may be surprised at how many defenses they can assert against an unlawful detainee, depending on the facts of their case.

What Happens at an Unlawful Detainer Court Hearing?

If the tenant files a proper answer, the unlawful detainer lawsuit will be quickly scheduled for hearing before a judge or jury trial. The hearing procedures are as follows:

The landlord presents the case first.

At the hearing, the landlord’s attorney will present first. The lawyer will argue why the tenant should be evicted under the facts and lease contract. The landlord will submit relevant documents and question any landlord witnesses.

Tenant Presents Defenses

The tenant will then have an opportunity to cross-examine the landlord’s witnesses and present defenses by submitting contrary documents, testifying, and questioning supporting witnesses.

Landlord Rebuttal

The landlord can offer rebuttal evidence responding to the tenant’s defenses. But rebuttal should be limited to countering the tenant’s defenses and not presenting the landlord’s whole case again.

Closing Arguments

After evidence concludes, each side can make closing arguments to summarize why they should prevail on the facts and law. The tenant argues last.

Court Decision

The judge or jury then decides the case. If a proper defense is found, the court will rule in favor of the tenant. Otherwise, the landlord prevails and obtains a judgment for possession.

Presenting persuasive testimony and evidence in support of defenses is key to getting a favorable outcome at an unlawful detainer hearing.

What Happens After the Court’s Ruling in an Unlawful Detainer Case?

The court’s judgment after an unlawful detainer trial determines what happens next:

Tenant Wins – Case Dismissed

If tenant wins, the unlawful detainer complaint is dismissed and their tenancy continues with no interruption. The tenant remains in lawful possession.

Landlord Wins – Writ of Possession Issues

If the landlord wins, the court will issue a writ of possession in 5 days allowing the sheriff to forcibly remove the tenant. A lockout or lock change can occur.

Tenant Appeals – Stay of Eviction

A tenant can file an appeal within 5 days of judgment to stay enforcement of the writ of possession. The tenant pays rent to court as “rent pending appeal” during the appeal.

Partial Rent Award to Landlord

If the court finds the tenant breached the lease but has defenses, it may order tenant to pay part of the rent claimed or correct other defaults as a condition of dismissing case.

Case Dismissed With Prejudice

A dismissal with prejudice means the unlawful detainer lawsuit is permanently dismissed and landlord cannot refile suit for same claims.

The court’s judgment determines whether tenant must vacate or can remain in possession of the rental unit.

Fighting an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit in Orange County

What are a Tenant’s Options Once a Writ of Possession is Issued?

A writ of possession is a court order directing the sheriff to forcibly remove a tenant found guilty of unlawful detainer. Tenants facing eviction due to a writ of possession issued after an unlawful detainer judgment have the following options:

Negotiate More Time From Landlord

Though not required, some landlords will agree to provide a few extra days for the tenant to voluntarily vacate if the tenant agrees to waive the lockout and service of writ. Any agreement should be in writing.

Ask Sheriff to Delay Lockout

The tenant can request that the sheriff delay the physical eviction. But the sheriff can only postpone 1-2 weeks. Further delay requires a court order.

File Emergency Bankruptcy

Filing an emergency Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition will trigger automatic stay of the eviction under federal law. This tactic works once.

Request Stay of Writ From Court

The tenant can apply to the court for a stay of the writ of possession pending appeal based on extraordinary hardship from physical eviction.

File Appeal and Rent Pending Appeal

An appeal will stay the writ provided tenant pays ongoing rent to the court as it becomes due until the appeal is decided.

Request Partial Stay of Enforcement

If unable to pay full rent pending appeal, the tenant may request a partial stay, allowing extra time to vacate, provided a portion of the rent is paid.

Surrender Property and Move Out

Once a writ is issued, the tenant may have no choice but to voluntarily vacate the property and return possession to the landlord before physical eviction occurs.

A writ of possession is extremely difficult to overcome. Tenants removed after a writ is executed will also face serious barriers to renting again. Trying the options above is wise, but preparing to vacate quickly is also prudent planning.

What are Some Common Unlawful Detainer Mistakes to Avoid?

Navigating unlawful detainer cases presents many traps for unwary tenants. Here are some common mistakes tenants should avoid when defending eviction litigation:

Ignoring Notices and Deadlines

Perhaps the worst mistake tenants can make is ignoring eviction notices and unlawful detainer legal deadlines. This virtually guarantees default and irrevocable eviction orders against the tenant. Litigation time limits must be strictly followed.

Getting Emotional

Unlawful detainers raise intense emotions on both sides. Anger or outrage at the landlord, while understandable, should not drive litigation tactics. Overheated courtroom disputes will only undermine the tenant’s defense. Calmly asserting rights is more effective.

Withholding Rent Without Legal Advice

Tenants sometimes improperly withhold rent when disputes arise with the landlord. But absent proper habitability claims, this can defeat defenses and lead to eviction. Tenants should instead pay rent in full and dispute issues through proper legal channels.

Failure to Document Rent Payments and Requests

Meticulously documenting rent payments and repair requests is key to supporting defenses, but is often neglected by tenants. Detailed records are essential to proving claims in court and avoiding evidentiary “he said/she said” debates.

Not Asserting All Possible Defenses

Tenants may fail to raise defenses at trial that could have changed the outcome. Knowledge of the wide range of unlawful detainer defenses and case evidence needed to support them is vital to defending eviction lawsuits.

Avoiding these common errors will significantly improve tenants’ ability to successfully fight unlawful detainer cases. Tenants who understand landlord-tenant law can protect their rights despite steep odds.

Frequently Asked Questions About Unlawful Detainer in California

❓ How long does an unlawful detainer lawsuit take in California?

Unlawful detainer lawsuits progress very quickly, often taking only 1-2 months from start to finish. Defendants have only 5 days to respond to the complaint and trial must be held within 20 days if requested.

❓ Can I go to jail for unlawful detainer?

Unlawful detainer lawsuits are civil actions, not criminal ones. Defendants cannot be jailed as a direct penalty. But resisting enforcement of a writ of possession or court orders may constitute civil contempt, resulting in fines or arrest.

❓ What if I can’t afford an attorney for unlawful detainer?

Many tenants go through unlawful detainer cases without legal representation by carefully following proper procedures. Tenants can also seek assistance from legal aid groups, tenant clinics, and self-help resources. Representing yourself is hard, but possible.

❓ Can unlawful detention be filed against unauthorized occupants?

Unlawful detainers will name all known tenants who have lawful possession according to the lease documents. Unauthorized occupants without tenant status cannot be sued for unlawful detainer but may be removed as trespassers.

❓ Can unlawful detainee be removed to federal court?

No, defendants cannot remove unlawful detainer lawsuits filed in state court to federal court. Federal courts lack jurisdiction over landlord-tenant disputes governed by state real property laws.

❓ Can a tenant recover their attorney fees if they win?

Yes, under California Civil Code Section 1717, tenants who prevail in an unlawful detainer lawsuit can recover reasonable attorney fees from the landlord in addition to damages if the lease has an attorney fee provision.

❓ Can a landlord evict without going through court?

No, self-help evictions through lockouts, utility shutoffs, or seizing tenant belongings without court process are illegal in California and subject landlords to substantial penalties under state law. Landlords must use proper court procedures.


What Other Options Exist Besides Unlawful Detainer Lawsuits?

Unlawful detainer actions are not the only option for handling tenant defaults. Landlords and tenants should also be aware of the following alternative dispute resolution methods:


Mediation involves a neutral third party trying to negotiate a compromise resolution that satisfies both the tenant and landlord. It can be faster, cheaper, and less adversarial than litigation. Many jurisdictions offer free landlord-tenant mediation programs.


Arbitration is more formal than mediation but still outside the court system. The parties present evidence and legal arguments to an arbitrator who then issues a binding decision. Arbitration can also be faster and cheaper than unlawful detainer lawsuits.

Lodging Complaints with Housing Agencies

Many local and state housing agencies can lodge complaints against landlords for health code violations, discrimination, failure to maintain the premises, or other improper practices as an alternative to court action. An investigation may lead to curing deficiencies without litigation.

Using Rent Withholding Escrow Accounts

Instead of withholding rent, tenants can pay into a neutral escrow account. The money is released either to the landlord after defects are fixed or returned to the tenant if not. This avoids nonpayment unlawful detainers.

Seeking Rent Reduction Orders from Housing Boards

For serious habitability issues, some city housing boards can order rent decreases until repairs are completed as an alternative to rent withholding. This prevents eviction for nonpayment.

Requesting Reasonable Accommodations for Disabilities

Instead of illegal detainer actions for not following the terms of the lease, tenants may be able to get exceptions to the normal rules from housing providers as reasonable accommodations for disabilities.

Qualifying for Emergency Rental Assistance Funds

Government and non-profit emergency rental assistance programs can cover owed rent or ongoing payments for tenants facing hardship. This avoids unlawful detainers for nonpayment.

Pursuing alternatives to unlawful detainer litigation can potentially save time, money, and frustration for both landlords and tenants when disputes arise. In suitable cases, compromise may better serve all interests compared to the zero-sum game of eviction lawsuits.

Key Takeaways

  • Unlawful detainers allow landlords to quickly evict nonpaying or lease-violating tenants through expedited court procedures.
  • Tenants must carefully follow proper notice and response rules at each stage or risk default judgments.
  • Tenants have more defense options than they may realize if they understand the facts and law.
  • Alternatives like settlement agreements, mediation, arbitration, and housing agency complaints may avoid litigation.
  • Knowing unlawful detainer rules, preserving all defenses, and having a backup plan if evicted will aid tenants facing potential lawsuits.

While daunting, unlawful detainer procedures ensure due process for both landlords and tenants. Educating oneself on the rules levels the playing field for tenants responding to eviction lawsuits. Asserting rights in a lawful manner can help tenants maintain their tenancies or peacefully transition to new housing.

Is evicting a tenant in California really that difficult?

California has some of the nation’s strongest eviction protections for tenants. Landlords cannot simply lock out or forcibly remove tenants who breach leases or fail to pay rent. Instead, landlords must go through the formal unlawful detainer lawsuit process. 

This requires properly serving notices, filing court papers, winning judgments, and using sheriffs for enforcement. 

The many required steps make evictions in California time-consuming and challenging compared to other states. 

Tenant protections also create many potential defenses that skilled tenants can assert. For small landlords, pursuing eviction lawsuits can be burdensome. 

But larger property management companies are experienced in navigating the system to remove problematic tenants. 

While evictions in California are quite difficult compared to elsewhere, landlords do have recourse through the courts if tenants clearly violate leases.

How long can a tenant stay after eviction in California?

After a landlord wins an unlawful detainer lawsuit and the court issues a writ of possession, tenants have very limited time remaining on the property. 

Tenants typically have only 5 days to voluntarily leave before the sheriff performs a lockout. 

The sheriff may grant a brief extension of a few days or weeks if the tenant requests more time to move out. Tenants can file an emergency appeal which will temporarily “stay” enforcement of the writ as long as they pay rent to the court during the appeal. 

This can buy a couple months at most. Tenants may also request the court delay physical eviction for extreme hardship. 

But such requests are rarely granted. Negotiating “cash for keys” deals to move out faster are also possible. 

Overall, while a tenant may legally remain during the days of any granted extensions, stays, or delayed lockout dates, the clock ticks fast once a writ is issued.

Tenants realistically have weeks or a few months maximum before forced removal occurs after losing an unlawful detainer case.

Is it legal to evict a tenant who is sick and behind on rent?

Landlords need valid grounds to start an eviction through the unlawful detainer process. If a tenant is delinquent on rent payments, that provides a lawful basis for the landlord to give a notice to quit and proceed with an eviction lawsuit after designated notice periods expire. 

Unpaid rent is a valid reason for eviction, regardless of a tenant’s health or disability. However, a disabled tenant can request “reasonable accommodation” exceptions to standard lease terms related to their disability under fair housing laws. 

This may allow additional time to pay rent or alter payment plans. Tenants can also leverage poor health to delay enforcement of eviction orders on “hardship stay” grounds or obtain general extensions from the sheriff. 

But the landlord is not legally obligated to allow nonpayment to persist indefinitely due to a tenant’s sickness. 

In sympathetic circumstances, a tenant’s health status does not invalidate an otherwise lawful eviction for rent delinquency. 

The tenant must pursue legal remedies or negotiate accommodations.

How hard is it to evict a tenant with no lease that has been living for 2 years in California?

California tenants without written leases who pay rent on a monthly basis are deemed “month-to-month” tenants. 

Landlords must provide 30 days written notice to terminate a month-to-month tenancy if the tenant has resided on the property for less than a year. But tenants occupying the unit for a year or more require 60 days of notice. 

If the tenant fails to vacate after proper notice, the landlord can then file an unlawful detainer lawsuit. Importantly, month-to-month tenants can only be evicted for limited “just cause” reasons under the Tenant Protection Act versus no-cause evictions permitted for lease tenants. 

Overall, while lengthier termination notices apply, evicting month-to-month tenants for just cause using the unlawful detainer process remains relatively straightforward, assuming proper notices are served. 

The lack of a written lease and long occupancy do not pose significant barriers to otherwise lawful evictions following proper procedures.

What is the craziest thing a tenant did after receiving an eviction notice?

Some wild, true stories:

A tenant built ramshackle “spite structures” on the rental property after eviction noticing; tenants cement-sealed the doors and fled out the window to barricade themselves in; a tenant threatened to falsely claim health code or building code violations if evicted; tenants continued illegally running an unlicensed boarding house after notices; renters stripped all appliances and fixtures down to the studs on their way out after losing in court; tenants deliberately damaged the unit and smashed holes in the walls out of anger over the eviction; renters threatened baseless legal counterclaims against the landlord to intimidate them into dropping eviction; tenants filed dubious retaliation or discrimination claims; renters bluntly stated they would hide from the sheriff to impede enforcement; a tenant accused the landlord of harassment for proceeding with lawful eviction.  

While rare, some unlawfully defiant tenants do resort to desperate schemes, scams, property damage, intimidation, or worse in response to eviction attempts!

What happens after filing unlawful detainer California?

After a landlord files an unlawful detainer complaint in California, the tenant has only 5 calendar days to submit a written response, called an “answer.” If the tenant fails to respond properly, the landlord can seek a default judgment for possession of the property. 

If the tenant answers, a court hearing must occur within 20 days where the landlord must prove his eviction case. 

After hearing, the judge either dismisses the case or issues judgment for eviction, allowing the landlord to obtain a writ of possession to forcibly remove the tenant. 

The tenant can delay physical eviction by paying ongoing rent to court during appeal or requesting stays from the sheriff for hardship. 

But ultimately, responding promptly to the unlawful detainer filing is critical or the tenant will be evicted by court order.

What happens when a landlord is successful after pursuing an unlawful detainer action?

If a landlord wins an unlawful detainer lawsuit in California, the court will issue a judgment granting possession of the property back to the landlord. 

The judgment will order the tenant to move out, known as a “writ of possession.” If the tenant does not voluntarily leave within 5 days, the sheriff can physically lock out the tenant and remove all belongings left behind. 

The landlord can then regain occupancy, clean and repair the unit, and look for a new tenant. A successful unlawful detainer action provides the force of law to effectively evict a non-cooperative tenant who violated lease terms. 

However, the landlord must carefully follow all proper procedures or risk having the judgment reversed later.

What is a default judgment for an unlawful detainee?

If the tenant fails to submit a written answer to an unlawful detainer complaint within 5 days of receiving it, the landlord can seek a default judgment from the court. 

This means the tenant automatically loses by default and the landlord is awarded possession without a trial occurring. 

Since the tenant did not appear and defend himself, the unlawful detainer allegations are legally deemed true. Default judgments allow landlords to quickly evict tenants who ignore the complaint. Tenants can try to overturn defaults by showing good cause for the failure to respond, but this is difficult. Avoiding default by answering the complaint is critical.

Can a tenant win an unlawful detainer California?

Yes, tenants can and do prevail in unlawful detainer cases in California. Common defenses like improper notices, discrimination, a warranty of habitability violations by the landlord, or a lack of necessary landlord permits can defeat eviction.