Owning a rental property in California comes with its fair share of legal formalities and issues. However, as a professional landlord or investor you need to be extra diligent about legal awareness, especially when dealing with litigants or tenants who keep filing frivolous complaints against you.
The California court has an official term for such individuals – vexatious litigants.
Dealing with vexatious tenants can be stressful and time-consuming. They are likely to sue you for unreasonable causes, file frequent complaints in court, and waste your time and money.
To cite an example, real estate investors in San Francisco have paid a total of $4.7 million - $2.6 million to settle lawsuits by tenants who claimed they have been illegally evicted under the state “owner move-in” laws. Every year, there are many such frivolous lawsuits filed by vexatious litigants under California law. So, it is essential to understand how to identify a troublesome tenant and deal with them proactively.
In this article, we discuss vexatious litigants, the California statute regarding these tenants, and the legal process of filing complaints against such litigants.
Who is considered a vexatious litigant in California?
The California Code of Civil Procedure, Section 391 defines vexatious litigants as:
A person who has filed at least five litigations, other than in small claims courts, which have either been ruled against them, or have been pending in court for more than two years without being brought to trial.
A person who is repeatedly trying to sue the defendant of a previous litigation, to whom they have lost the verdict, by contesting the cause of action or the validity of the ruling.
A person who repeatedly engages in tactics like baseless motions, discoveries, or documents, with the sole purpose of delaying the proceedings.
A person who has been declared as a vexatious litigant by any state or federal court on these or similar grounds.
Generally speaking, vexatious litigants are people who repeatedly file lawsuits or petitions without merit and have only flimsy evidence to support their claims. Their sole intention is to harass or subdue the defendant by unnecessarily prolonging court proceedings till the defendant gives in and agrees to settle.
Here are some examples of frivolous lawsuits:
An obese person suing the doors of your commercial or residential property because of the small size of doors.
A tenant suing the landlord to claim compensation for a false or exaggerated injury.
A thief breaking into your rental and suing you because they hurt themselves while trying to rob the place.
A tenant who believes that they have been discriminated against during the screening process.
These litigants look for the most trivial excuses to sue the landlords and receive huge amounts in settlement. Let us see how California’s law deals with such people.
California's Vexatious Litigant Statute Under Section 391
The legal system in any state or country is to protect the rights of people and encourage them to readdress any harm caused by any other person. The same applies to the California legal system. It values justice and allows people to file lawsuits against the offender to get justice. However, dealing with cases and the people who file one can be taxing and expensive, mainly when people sue you without any practical or logical reason.
The judicial council of California understands the seriousness of the problem and prevents such litigants from filing such unreasonable lawsuits. If you have been sued by any litigant maliciously, the law allows you to countersue them, prove your innocence and ask for compensation for the damage from the lawsuit. Here are some steps to protect yourself from vexatious litigants.
Under section 391.7, the defendant can approach the court and enter a prefiling order against a vexatious litigant. This prohibits the litigant from filing any new lawsuits against the defendant in California. All the litigants subject to the prefiling order must comply with it as there can be serious repercussions otherwise. So, if you are facing constant harassment from any of your tenants, you can have the court issue a prefiling order against them.
Get Judicial Permission
Although a prefiling order may stop litigants from lodging unreasonable complaints, the presiding judge can still allow the litigant to proceed if it appears that their litigations have merit. At the same time though, the judge is expected to ensure the defendant's security while allowing litigants to file complaints.
The court clerk also can't file litigation presented by vexatious litigants unless they receive an order from the presiding judge permitting them to fill. The clerk should provide a copy of the vexatious litigants' list and prefiling order to the judicial council.
Know About Your Defendant's Rights
A defendant can make a motion to request security during any pending litigation in any California court. However, before that, the defendant must show that the offender is a vexatious litigant. Once a defendant requests security, the case is halted until the court determines that they are vexatious litigants. Once the court finds that the lawsuit is filed without any valid reason, it will order the plaintiff to provide security to the defendant.
Repercussion Of Disobeying Prefiling Order
According to California Civil Law, all vexatious litigants subject to pre-filing orders must stop filing invalid complaints against other people. Litigants who disobey such charges can be punished for contempt of court. They might even need to pay any defamation or libel charges or legal expenditure that the other party has incurred.
How to Remove a Name From The List of Vexatious Litigants?
Under Code of Civil Procedure section 391.7, the judicial council maintains a list of vexatious litigants and updates it monthly. The judicial council staff disseminates the list of people who are subject to pre-filing orders online.
Vexatious litigants may apply in court to remove their names from the list. The application should be filed in the same court where the prefiling order was entered. They should present the application before the same judge who had issued the order. In the absence of the judge or justice, litigants can submit an application before the presiding judge.
The court may vacate the prefiling order or remove the name of the applicants from the vexatious litigant's list if there is a material change in the facts based on which the order was granted, provided the litigant has served the order of vacating.
If the application is approved, the litigant’s name will be struck off the list. On the other hand, if the person’s application is rejected by the court, they cannot file another application until 12 months from the date of rejection.
Forms Required for Filing a Lawsuit Under the Vexatious Litigants Statute
There are different forms that you may need during the application process.
Prefiling Order: A mandatory form that the judicial council uses to declare a person or organization as a vexatious litigant.
Request To File New Litigation: An optional form that vexatious litigants may use to file new litigation in the court only after receiving permission from the presiding judge to file a new petition.
Order To File New Litigation: A form that is an order portion of the request to file new litigation.
Application To Vacate Prefiling Order: Litigants use this form to request the judicial council remove their name from the list of vexatious litigants or vacate the order.
How to Deal with Vexatious Tenants
The best way to avoid dealing with vexatious tenants is by ensuring that such cases do not occur altogether. Communication is key here. Landlords should make it a point to communicate every single detail about the rental with the tenant, so that they do not have any opportunity to complain.
Even so, there are going to be some troublemakers who sue you for silly reasons. Here’s how you can deal with such vexatious litigants.
Stay calm and don’t panic
Panicking about the situation is likely to make it worse. Remember that such lawsuits are very common. Some people simply have a vindictive nature and wish to cause mental anguish and monetary loss. However, if you stay calm and focused while facing a clearly crazy lawsuit, the ruling is likely to be in your favor.
Trust the discretion of the court and California’s legal system
Judges see such cases all the time and are very quick to recognize and dismiss a frivolous lawsuit. Do not get angry or agitated if the process seems to be moving a bit slowly. Get an attorney who is knowledgeable in the area and file all the required motions ahead of time.
Collect all documents and evidence
In most cases, a frivolous lawsuit may be dismissed even without being heard, but if things do go ahead, make sure that you have all the case-related documents and evidence in place. This includes any type of communication you might have had with the tenant, bank receipts, tickets, and so on.
Get expert legal counsel
Even in case of a frivolous lawsuit, you need to ensure that you follow all legal procedures to the letter. Do not try to deal with it on your own. Seemingly small litigations can blow up into bigger cases if not handled properly at the start. So, get a professional attorney, who has dealt with such cases before, and make sure you build a solid case.
Talk to Your Property Manager
As a landlord, it can be challenging to deal with vexatious litigants. Not only is it a colossal waste of time and money, but there’s also a lot of mental anguish in having to visit the court and handling hearings on your own. A better way is to get help from professional property managers, who can ensure that such situations do not arise in the first place. They can prevent you from making any technical or legal errors, and so eliminate any opportunity for tenants to sue you.
At Bell Properties, we are a full-service property management company in Los Angeles County and we offer all types of legal services to our clients. We have a rock-solid network of qualified and experienced local attorneys who can help you deal quickly and easily with vexatious litigants and complete all the required legal formalities.
Connect with us at Bell Properties to know more about the best ways to handle vexatious litigants.