Separating Rent and Eviction Into Two Claims

June 14, 2018
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Q: I owe several months of back rent for the space I lease in a shopping center. The owner has threatened to bring an unlawful detainer action. I understand that an unlawful detainer action pertains to eviction. If I win, could the owner still bring a separate action for the rent?

A: Yes, an owner’s unlawful detainer action doesn’t bar a subsequent lawsuit for rent. A recent California case addressed this.

There, after a retail tenant stopped paying rent, the owner of the center asked a trial court for an “unlawful detainer” so that it could physically evict the tenant. An unlawful detainer action is a summary proceeding designed to adjudicate the right of immediate possession; the only claims in this type of proceeding are those “bearing directly on the immediate right of possession.”

The unlawful detainer action essentially serves to determine whether a tenant can be rightfully removed from the premises. The trial court granted the request, and ordered the tenant to pay one month’s past due rent. (The tenant owed several months of rent in total.)

The owner later sued the tenant in a separate lawsuit for the entire remaining amount of back rent. The tenant argued that the amount of rent it could be ordered to pay was limited to the single month’s rent awarded in the unlawful detainer claim. It said that the legal doctrine of “res judicata” prevented the owner from collecting other amounts owed from the same tenancy. Res judicata, or “claim preclusion,” refers to the idea that a judgment on a certain matter in a case will prevent a plaintiff from being able to sue a defendant on other claims that stem from the same situation. 

A California court dismissed the tenant’s res judicata claim and ruled that the owner was entitled to sue the tenant for claims unrelated to the eviction it sought from the unlawful detainer. The court noted that, because an unlawful detainer action’s main purpose is to determine whether a landlord can legally evict a tenant from a space, and not to deal with past due rent or other issues related to the lease, a judgment in unlawful detainer usually has very limited “res judicata effect” regarding related issues between the parties, here a landlord and tenant. That is, it typically won’t prevent separate lawsuits, such as for unpaid rent. The fact that the landlord had been awarded one month of past due rent didn’t affect its ability to try to collect the remaining amount in a different lawsuit. 

“The landlord is not precluded from seeking rent for different time periods in separate actions because the damages for back-due rent in an unlawful detainer action were limited to the month for which the landlord demanded it, and the judgment awarding that month’s rent and possession did not bar recovering back-due rent for other months in a subsequent civil action,” the court concluded [Hong Sang Market, Inc. v. Peng, February 2018].