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Court Eases Service Requirements in Unlawful Detainer Actions

Legal Update and Real Estate Law by Peter N. Brewer, Esq.

In a recent Sixth Appellate District ruling, the Court made it easier for a landlord to serve a tenant with an unlawful detainer complaint.  In Stanford v. Ham, the court found that service of a complaint by posting and mailing is appropriate even if there is no background investigation.  This relieves the landlord from having to perform a tedious and expensive search for additional contact information from tenants.

Facts of the Case

Beginning in May 2003, Christine Ham, a graduate student attending Stanford University, began renting an apartment from Stanford.  In 2008, Ham qualified for Stanford’s below market rate program.  However, in 2009, she no longer qualified for the program and Stanford increased her rent.  Ham refused to pay the new rent.  Accordingly, Stanford began eviction proceedings.  At the time Stanford attempted to evict Ham, she was travelling along the East Coast and could not be personally served.  In most circumstances, a plaintiff must serve the complaint, the document that initiates the lawsuit, by personally giving it to the defendant.  However, in certain situations, the plaintiff can move the court to allow for service through other means if personal service is not possible.  Here, since Stanford did not have any other addresses for Ham besides the California address, personal service was not possible and Stanford applied for permission to serve the eviction action by posting and mailing pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure 415.45.  The court granted Stanford’s motion and Stanford eventually regained possession of the property.  After learning of the judgment, Ham appealed to the matter to a 3-judge panel of the superior court who held that posting and mailing was not proper because Stanford failed to take additional steps to try to serve Ham.  Stanford then appealed that decision to the Appellate Court.

Holding

The court reversed the 3-judge panel’s decision and found that the posting and mailing order was properly granted.  The court reasoned that in an unlawful detainer action, the key issue is possession.  If the tenant is interested in keeping possessory rights to the property, it is reasonable to assume that the tenant would visit the property on a regular basis.  Accordingly, one of the better ways to provide notice to a tenant is by posting and mailing a copy of the complaint to the disputed property.  Here, since Stanford had attempted to personally serve the complaint and no one was at the property, Stanford performed its due diligence in attempting to serve the complaint.  As the court determined that posting and mailing was most likely the best way to serve the tenant, it was reasonable for the court to grant the motion.

Takeaway

By issuing this decision, the Court has clarified what steps are necessary in order for a landlord to receive a posting and mailing order.  The Court’s ruling makes it clear that a landlord is not required to perform an expensive and lengthy background investigation before meeting the reasonable diligence requirement in an unlawful detainer case.

If you are a landlord and need assistance evicting a tenant or if you are a tenant who believes you were wrongfully served with an unlawful detainer action, feel free to give us a call at (650) 327-2900 or website our website at www.BrewerFirm.com

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