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Advice Regarding Suing Landlord in Small Claims Court

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Junior Member
What is the name of your state (only U.S. law)? California

I have an unresolved monetary dispute between myself and my landlord. I am seeking advice as far as taking this issue to small claims court.

On 8/04/14, the condo that I am currently renting experienced some electric problems when the oven/stove suddenly blew out. I tried switching the breakers in the breaker box on and off, which usually solved electrical short-outs in the past. Not only did it not work, all of the electricity in the condo was shut down in the process and would not turn back on (which was unusual considering I had shut off/on all of the breaker switches before without this happening). I immediately called the maintenance line serviced by the realty company hired by my landlord to deal with tenant maintenance issues. I was able to reach someone and they suggested that I call SDG&E to help fix the problem. I then called SDG&E, they checked my electricity service which was working fine, they then suggested that I shut off and on the main power switch that services electricity to my condo which was located outside. I did this which worked as far as getting the electricity back on, however, the oven/stove remained out of order and I later learned that the water heater had also malfunctioned (water no longer ran hot).

On 8/05/14 early the next day, I wrote a formal complaint to the maintenance request online form which is serviced by the same realty company hired by my landlord to address tenant maintenance complaints. I explained that I was experiencing electric problems in the condo and that major appliances had malfunctioned as a result. I requested that an electrician be sent out to evaluate the problem. I gave them my permission to enter the condo if necessary. After 24 hours, I received no response to my request.

On the early morning of 8/06/14, I followed-up on the online maintenance request with a call to the maintenance line serviced by the realty company hired by my landlord to deal with tenant maintenance issues. No one answered my call, instead the call was directed to an automated answering service which requested that I leave a voicemail with my complaint as well as phone number and that I would be called back. I left a voicemail as requested, giving my name, phone number and reiterating the electric problem within the condo. I again requested that an electrician be sent to evaluate the problem. Again, 24 hours went by without any response.

At this point, I had been living uncomfortably for a few days without hot water and a working oven/stove, it was most unusual that I had received no response from management as they never took longer than a few hours to respond to repair grievances in the past (I have plenty of proof of this, they had responded via email the same day to all of my past online maintenance requests, I never went days without a response in the past). Since I had no idea when this issue would ever be addressed and I had been living so uncomfortably, I took it upon myself to contact an electrician to evaluate and assess the problem. He arrived at the condo and immediately pulled out the oven/stove appliance to assess the problem. He expressed much concern over the installation wiring of the appliance, saying that it had been wired improperly and that one of the wires had come loose and had rubbed against metal, shorting out the electricity. He said that the way it had been wired was dangerous as it was a potential fire hazard. He recommended fixing the wiring within the appliance, which I agreed to. After this was finished, the electrician checked the breaker box for any problems. He found that one of the circuit breakers was damaged, which may have explained why all of the electricity would not turn back on after I had shut off all of the breaker switches and then turned them back on. He saw a lot of issues with the way that the circuit breakers had been installed and insulated, in fact, it violated housing codes. I agreed to have him replace the broken circuit breaker, which solved the main electric problems I was experiencing, but he did recommend I take photos of the circuit breaker box (which I did) and show them to the landlord. He also suggested that the landlord address the problem of the breaker box before it becomes a major problem. In all, I spent $601 to repair the minimum required to make housing conditions liveable.

On 08/07/14, I once again notified the online maintenance request form. I informed them of the dire state that the wiring within the condo was found, that the electric problem had been ongoing for some time, and that I myself had paid for the necessary repairs. I had a copy of the invoice detailing the wiring problems as well as the costs as well as the contact information for the electrician who evaluated the problem. I kindly requested that the landlord reimburse me for the cost of repair. Well, this time, I did receive an immediate email response. I was informed that this information would be forwarded to the landlord and that he would decide how to proceed.

Over the course of the following days, I received email correspondence from the realty company informing me that the landlord refused to reimburse me for any costs incurred as he was unhappy that the bill was too high. I was accused of not notifying maintenance that there was a problem and instead taking care of it myself, therefore going against their policy. I responded that I had indeed informed them, the proof was online which they could see for themselves. They then asked me why I did not call them. Again, I informed them that I did call, and also left a voicemail letting them know that there was a problem that needed to be addressed right away. They then informed me that they had no record that I had called. In response, I pulled up my phone record information and provided proof that I had indeed called them on that morning: the call was date and time stamped, and it was 3 minutes in duration. While I do not have a copy of the voicemail that I left them, the duration of the call suggests that I did spend time enough on the call to have left a detailed message. I was then told that they were very sorry, there was nothing they could do, and the landlord will not pay.

Over the past two weeks I have tried reasoning with them, I even called the electrician directly and asked if he was willing to speak with them since the landlord did not seem to recognize that there was (and technically, still is) a severe wiring issue that needed to be addressed. He was willing to call them, he has tried this already but they refuse to return any of his calls. I have also emailed them explaining that it is important that they speak with him, he has important information and the landlord does not understand the severity of the issue. They responded that they refuse to speak with him and the landlord will not pay.

I did not want to resort to taking legal action against my landlord since I have overall had a good relationship with him and the realty company in the past, but I feel as though they did me a disservice by ignoring my initial requests and forcing me to live under such uncomfortable (and, due to wiring issues, potentially dangerous) circumstances. I therefore plan to take this matter to small claims to try to receive reimbursement from my landlord. I do have a few legal questions for this forum since I have never been to small claims court before:

1. Do I sue only the landlord, or both the landlord and the realty company?
2. What evidence is necessary to prove my case? I have all email correspondence from the realty company, proof of my initial online complaint and request to them, proof that I called their maintenance line, copy of the invoice detailing damages and cost of repair, pictures of shoddy wiring work, and the defective circuit breaker. Should I obtain any other documentation? I have thought about calling a neighborhood compliance representative to evaluate the wiring conditions within the condo and give conclusions as to whether or not any housing codes are violated.
3. I realize that I must first mail a formal letter to the landlord requesting reimbursement and that failure to do so will result in a small claims suit against him. How much time is the defendant generally given to pay before I go ahead with a small claims lawsuit?
4. Any other thoughts/suggestions/advice you may have is much appreciated!

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