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After several years of habitability issues (which were eventually fixed after 4 years), our landlord is asking us to sign a settlement agreement that would release them from all liability dating back to the start of our tenancy.

I’ve agreed to sign it on the condition that they reimburse us for rent overpaid during those months of hardship, which they’ve not agreed to. I’m considering taking them to small claims, but there’s a clause in our lease claiming a six month statute of limitations on damages (state law is 4 years) and another claiming that tenants can only pursue legal action within 30 days of terminating the lease.

I think I’ve got solid ground to take this before a judge, but I’m no lawyer nor can I afford to hire one - any advice you could provide (examples or references would be amazing) would be greatly appreciated.

  • Tricky question. A statute of limitations can sometimes be contractually released, but the ability to do so without having the provision determined to be void for violating public policy is not unlimited. – ohwilleke Aug 11 '18 at 21:47
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At the outset, I don't understand why people are voting to close this question. The question presents an interesting issue of contract law.

Can a Rental Contract Supersede State Law?

No, not in your situation. The doctrine of contra proferentem is decisive, and it favors your position unless you are the party who drafted the lease contract (which is unlikely in a landlord-tenant context).

The clause establishing a six-month statute of limitations is in conflict with the tenant's right (per the same contract) "to pursue legal action within 30 days of terminating the lease". That is, the contract creates an ambiguity.

Because the 30-day deadline has not expired --by virtue of your lease not having been terminated yet--, the doctrine of contra proferentem dictates the ambiguity is decided or solved by adopting the option that favors the party who is not the draftsman of the ambiguous contract.

There is one note of caution, though. You mention that the statute of limitations in CA is four years, and also that the habitability issues lasted four years. At first glance, the latter suggests that the CA statute of limitations might have expired anyway (depending on the exact dates when your claims --specifically, your losses-- accrued). If that's the case, you need to be careful about what legal theory (or theories) to pursue. Some of these theories could be to proceed on the basis of:

  • Breach of contract by establishing that your losses accrued at the instant(s) the landlord failed to fix the issues;
  • Unjust enrichment accruing at the instant when the landlord refused to reimburse you for rent overpaid (assuming that reimbursement is consistent with the language of the lease); and/or
  • Fraud, if you are able to prove that the landlord intentionally misled you, and that your reasonable reliance on his representation(s) caused you losses.

Note that although in California "there is not a standalone cause of action for 'unjust enrichment,' which is synonymous with 'restitution', [...] [unjust enrichment and restitution] describe the theory underlying a claim that a defendant has been unjustly conferred a benefit through mistake, fraud, coercion, or request. [...] The return of that benefit is the remedy typically sought in a quasi-contract cause of action.", Astiana v. Hain Celestial Group, Inc., 783 F.2d 753, 762 (2015).

(For further information on the prima facie elements of these claims under California law, search for these terms at leagle.com)

The decision on which theories to pursue depend on additional, specific facts and details which are not reflected in your inquiry.

  • Great info, @Iñaki Viggers, thanks so much! I’m also a bit concerned about opening a case in small claims because of the “legal action must be taken within 30 days of lease termination,” is that something they could justifiably evict me for? – user20424 Aug 12 '18 at 15:00
  • @user20424 That would make them liable for breach of contract (depending on its permissible reasons for termination) because eviction rather relates to a tenant's default on rent payments, or tenant's disorderly conduct that causes annoyance or unsafe to other tenants and/or landlord's employees. However, the landlord could try the allegation that the lawsuit/case has not happened "within 30 days of termination". Hence the importance of arguing that "within 30 days of termination" should be construed as "by the 30th day after termination has occurred". – Iñaki Viggers Aug 12 '18 at 15:27
  • By “by the 30th day after termination has occurred" you mean because the lease has yet to be terminated, we’re still within the ground to raise a claim; that literally anything before the 30th day past lease termination counts as viable? – user20424 Aug 12 '18 at 19:23
  • @user20424 That's correct. Prior to the 30th day since lease termination, the only timing constraint to raise claims in court is the applicable statute(s) of limitations that California law establishes. – Iñaki Viggers Aug 12 '18 at 19:31
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    Gotcha. Thanks so much for the info and advice! – user20424 Aug 12 '18 at 19:52

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