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My landlord has back-billed me for 4.5 years of water utilities and are saying I owe them money. The lease does state that the tenant pays for water (split as a percentage with the adjacent duplex unit), however, it also explicitly states that this utility would be billed to the tenants every two months. We have never received a single bill from them regarding this utility, nor have we received any notification of violating our lease. They have failed to bill us and are charging it as a lump sum. I asked them why they never billed us, when they did send the percentage bill to the adjacent unit, and all they said was theyre "not sure" and may have "overlooked it". They are desperate to get me to move out since it is a rent-controlled unit and I feel like they have done this to cause issues and force me to default on rent. Is this a legal practice? Does the "billing every two months" in the lease have any hold on this issue if they breached their own lease? We honestly forgot about this utility on our end because our other utilities are on autopay, and without receiving any bills, it was out of sight out of mind. Is there anything we can do?

  • Sounds like LA, CA? Is that accurate? – BlueDogRanch Jan 18 at 6:21
  • yep! its on LA rent control. – LArenter1301 Jan 18 at 6:22
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    How are they trying to get you to move out? Have they threatened eviction? Have you talked to hrc-la.org or hcidla.lacity.org/renters about the situation and the legality of the back-billing and lease? – BlueDogRanch Jan 18 at 6:30
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    They havent threatened eviction since they have no grounds for it until I fail to pay rent. Basically I'm just dealing with really hostile people at the leasing office. They also have repeatedly delayed repairs or straight up do not respond to emails or calls. Essentially just making it difficult to live there or get things done through them. I get a run around whenever I ask to speak with the main supervisor. She seems to have been on vacation for over a year. -_- .. When I was discussing this billing issue with them, their only answer was "well you don't have to live here." – LArenter1301 Jan 18 at 6:36
  • I did talk to HCIDLA. They couldnt advise too much on it and suggested any billing issues was a civil issue and not under their jurisdiction. – LArenter1301 Jan 18 at 6:37
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Can landlord backbill 4.5 years worth of utilities that were never billed to us bimonthly as directed in the lease?

Yes, since the bimonthly billing issue appears to be within the LA statute of limitations for claims of breach of contract: 10 years (see here). But you might want to check the actual legislative language of the statute referred therein and the prior or consecutive ones --all pertaining to statutes of limitations-- so as to ascertain the accuracy of information in the first link (navigating through the bunch of LA two- or three-line statutes for this and that gets annoying).

They are desperate to get me to move out since it is a rent-controlled unit and I feel like they have done this to cause issues and force me to default on rent. Is this a legal practice?

I am not knowledgeable of state legislation particular to rent-controlled units, but I highly doubt it is lawful for them to proceed that way. Other details you describe reflect that the company has been --or is being-- malicious or grossly negligent. If so, strictly speaking, the company's conduct (1) ought to weaken its position or merits in trying to force you out, and (2) tends to contravene the contract law covenant of good faith and fair dealing (see below).

If your lease mentions any statutes regarding rent-controlled units, you may want to search for case law at leagle.com to see how the statutes are applied.

Without knowing the terms of your lease, I think your priority should at all times be the rent itself so as to avoid eviction.

Does the "billing every two months" in the lease have any hold on this issue if they breached their own lease?

Maybe not. The repeated, yet sole, failure to send you the bimonthly billings falls short of landlord's breach of contract.

For your argument on breach of contract to prevail, you would have to prove that the landlord knowingly/deliberately let the water bills pile up prior to demanding you to pay everything at once. That would prove that the landlord is not meeting the covenant of good faith and fair dealing that is prerequisite in contract law.

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    Thanks all. For clarification, I meant LA as in Los Angeles, not Louisiana. – LArenter1301 Jan 18 at 15:05
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Firstly, you did originally agree to pay them this money, so you have a moral obligation to pay at least some of it.

Secondly, there is limitation on how far back one can sue for money under a contract. If California, for breach of a written contract, it is four years, so you probably don't owe the first six months of the bill.

Thirdly, this money is not rent. Thus failing to pay it probably isn't a reason to evict you. (Consult your own paid-for lawyer to confirm that.) Edit Check your lease: the lease may make failure to pay such bills grounds for eviction.

Fourthly, there is a principle in some common law jurisdictions that if one party makes a mistake (not sending the bill), and the other party erroneously relies on that (by spending the money on something else), then the first party cannot later sue for the money. So if you have been piling up savings, then you have to pay; but if you have essentially nothing, then you don't. I don't know if this applies to California or not (I can't find the term to search for.) Edit A comment below strongly suggests this may not apply: Ohwilleke is rather more knowledgeable than me about law in American jurisdictions.

Given that this is a rent controlled property, it would probably be quite expensive to move somewhere else. As such, I suggest you write to them saying this is their error, and you have been (by mistake) relying on their error and have spent the money. As such, they should forgive one third of the debt (particularly as they cannot sue for the first six months anyway); and you will pay the remainder over the following two years (plus your rent and the future itemized bills as they become due).

Finally, given that this has the potential to cost you the roof over your head, I strongly suggest that you pay for at least a 30 minute consultation with your own lawyer.

  • Thanks for your answer—If I do choose to fight this in small claims, would it be better to just pay their whole bill first and then fight the amount owed? Or would writing a letter put any sort of delay or halt of payment until it’s all sorted out? – LArenter1301 Jan 18 at 15:11
  • @LArenter1301 If you pay everything, 1. you have proved you can pay everything so the principle in my fourth point wouldn't apply. 2. Although they can't sue you for money further back than four years (although see the other answer which believes a 10 year limit applies), that doesn't mean you don't owe the money, so if you give it to them voluntarily they have no obligation to return it. You would have absolutely no case to sue for the return of any part of the money. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jan 18 at 15:41
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    Also, please do not communicate with landlord before speaking with a lawyer, as you suspect this landlord is acting maliciously. – paulj Jan 18 at 19:43
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    @LArenter1301 I think you have reached the point where you need to talk to a lawyer. Ensuring your landlord accepts the rent payment as rent, is the sort of thing they can do easily. Also negotiating a reasonable repayment scheme. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jan 18 at 21:23
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    I would agree on your points one and two. I would disagree on points three and four. Almost every lease makes failure to pay charges such as utility passthrough's a ground for eviction and usually even calls it "additional rent". Your fourth point while it applies in some circumstances almost certainly does not apply here. Typically that doctrine would come into play if everyone signed off on a final settlement, for example, in a real estate closing. Also, leases uniformly give the landlord the right to attorneys' fees if they prevail against you. Pay at least the last 4 years worth. – ohwilleke Jan 18 at 23:42

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