By Dean Preston
Tenants Together would like to welcome Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum to the tenant blacklist. Here, with nothing more than a landlord’s accusations, a tenant’s ability to find rental housing can be damaged forever.
Last week, Lincecum was sued by his ex-landlord. Headlines blared that Lincecum had allegedly “trashed” his apartment, stolen items from the unit, and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. The sole source of information was, and is, the landlord’s complaint filed in superior court. No details were submitted with the lawsuit. No photos of the alleged damage were made available. In fact, not a single story contained independent verification of any of the landlord’s claims. But the price tag was widely reported – a whopping $350,000.
Now maybe Tim Lincecum will find a landlord willing to rent to him next season, but it’s likely that regardless of the facts of the case, he will be discriminated against if he tries to rent housing in the future. Even if he wins the case and disproves the allegations, the lawsuit will remain in the files of credit reporting agencies and tenant screening services, not to mention Google searches. He has been, and will forever remain, blacklisted, and there’s not a thing he can do about it.
Lincecum is not alone. Each year, tens of thousands of tenants in California are sued by their landlords, often in eviction actions. In some cases, there are grounds for the lawsuit. In others, there are not. The blacklist does not distinguish between the two types of cases.
Credit reporting companies scour court records for cases and report them to prospective landlords as part of credit checks. These companies include cases regardless of outcome. So even if a jury decides the landlord’s cases is frivolous, the case will likely end up damaging a tenant’s credit history.
There’s a state law on the books that prohibits credit reporting companies from including eviction case information unless the landlord wins the case. That makes a lot of sense, since only after the landlord wins is there reason to believe that the case had merit. However, California courts struck down this law, announcing that credit reporting companies had a First Amendment right to report available court records. As a result, credit companies report cases regardless of merit.
Rather than uncritically accept Lincecum’s landlord’s claims, let’s wait for some evidence. I’ve practiced landlord-tenant law for years. I’ve never heard of a tenant doing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to an apartment without a fire or flood. It makes me wonder what price tag this landlord would have claimed if her tenant didn’t have a multi-million dollar contract with the San Francisco Giants.