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What is a Summons and Complaint for an Unlawful Detainer?

What is a Summons and Complaint for an Unlawful Detainer?

What is a Summons and Complaint for an Unlawful Detainer?


What is a Summons and Complaint for an Unlawful Detainer?

There are many laws in place to protect the rights of tenants, including laws that dictate how a landlord must proceed when requesting to evict a tenant. For example, just because you’ve received an eviction notice doesn’t mean you need to leave the property. You and your landlord may be able to resolve the issues listed in the notice without taking any additional steps toward eviction.

However, a tenant who is served a Summons and Complaint for Unlawful Detainer must respond quickly. Failure to respond could result in a default judgment against the tenant, allowing the landlord to proceed with the eviction and making it much more difficult for a tenant to stay in their home. Understanding the eviction process and your rights can help you recognize if those rights have been violated and help you determine what type of assistance you may need.

How the Eviction Process Starts

It’s important to recognize that the Summons and Complaint is not the first step in the eviction process. Before the Summons is issued, the tenant must first receive a Notice asking them to resolve the problem. There are different types of Notices with varying deadlines, such as a Notice to “pay or quit” if you are behind on rent (in this instance, “quit” means move out) or a Notice to “perform covenants or quit” if the landlord is accusing you of violating the terms of the lease.

No matter what the issue is, the landlord must provide you with a written notice, properly delivered, that includes all information required by law; otherwise, it is not a legally valid Notice. Some Notices must include an opportunity for the tenant to “cure” the alleged violation, while others such as an Owner Move-In or Ellis Eviction do not. If you’re able to resolve the issue in the Notice by the requested deadline, the landlord should not take any additional action to evict you. If you refute the claims in the notice are true it is important to communicate that to the landlord, in writing before the notice period expires.

Understanding Your Summons and Complaint

If you and your landlord are not able to resolve the issues described in the Notice, then the landlord may move ahead with an eviction lawsuit. To do this, the landlord must file a Summons and Complaint with the court to request that you are defined as an unlawful detainer – meaning you no longer have the right to occupy your rental unit. For this reason, the term “unlawful detainer” is sometimes used to refer to the whole eviction process, but receiving a Summons and Complaint for Unlawful Detainer does not guarantee an eviction.

The landlord begins the lawsuit by receiving a court order for the eviction and serving two documents to the tenant:

  • The Summons. This document informs the tenant of the lawsuit and provides a deadline for the tenant to respond. Typically, tenants have five business days to file a responsive pleading (usually an “Answer”). Day 1 counts as the day after the papers were given to you. Holidays, Saturdays, and Sundays do not count towards the 5-day total.
  • The Complaint. This document lists the reasons the landlord believes the eviction is justified, seeks to define the tenant as an unlawful detainer, and requests relief from the court.

How Should a Tenant Respond to an Unlawful Detainer?

It is extremely important to respond to an Unlawful Detainer lawsuit before the deadline has passed. If you do not respond at all, the landlord can seek a default judgment, granting the landlord an automatic win and triggering the ability to have a sheriff force a tenant out of their home. After the deadline, a tenant’s legal options for responding to the lawsuit will be severely limited.

Generally, tenants will file a response to the Summons and Complaint known as an Answer. This is your chance to explain to the court why you should not be evicted or ask for more time to resolve the issue. While tenants can represent themselves and prepare a response on their own we strongly recommend seeking assistance through one of the many nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area, such as the Eviction Defense Collaborative, Legal Assistance for the Elderly, or Centro De La Raza. Before responding, read the complaint carefully and determine if it contains statements you may deny or defend against.

Once your Answer is served to the landlord and filed with the court, either you or your landlord can request a date for the eviction trial, where your dispute will be decided by a judge or jury. Do note that most cases are resolved in advance of trial via settlement.

What to Do If You Were Wrongfully Evicted

A wrongful eviction is different from an unlawful detainer. A wrongful eviction occurs when attempts to evict or actually cause a tenant to move out without a “just cause” for eviction. In cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, a landlord must have a “just cause” to evict a tenant (such as non-payment of rent or an owner move in). Examples of a wrongful eviction are:

    • when a landlord tells a tenant they have to move out without a just cause, and the tenant moves out;
    • an landlord evicts a tenant for an owner move in but never moves in, re-rents the unit to another person, or does not stay for the required time period;
    • A landlord terminates a tenancy by locking a tenant out of their home

Contact an Attorney

If you were wrongfully evicted from your residence you may be entitled to substantial financial compensation.  Call the attorneys at Wolford Wayne LLP for a free consultation to discuss your options. We are committed to protecting tenants in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley through dependable legal representation, and we can provide information specific to your case.

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For more information or to discuss your legal situation, call us today at (415) 649-6203 for a phone consultation or submit an inquiry below. Please note our firm can only assist tenants residing in San Francisco, Oakland & Berkeley.

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