By DANIEL WATTS
Q: My apartment complex says it’s their policy that I get my carpet cleaned by a professional carpet cleaner before I move out (I have been here for almost four years). Are they allowed to do this? What are the exact rules for apartments taking peoples deposits? Is it worth suing them in small claims court? Could I hire you or another lawyer to help me in matters like this?
— Brian B. Sacramento, CA
A: Your duty to your landlord is to restore your apartment to the same condition as it was in when you found it.
However, the law expects normal wear and tear to happen, so unless your cats shredded the floor, you shouldn’t have to replace or professionally clean your carpet. The expected lifespan of a carpet varies depending on the brand. Google the carpet’s manufacturer, call their headquarters and ask them after how many years the carpet should be replaced.
Here’s an example. Let’s say your carpet’s lifespan is eight years. After four years, your carpet should be 50 percent worthless. If the carpet had been languishing in that apartment for four years before you moved in, the carpet is now eight years old and needed replacement this year anyway. No amount of cleaning would fix it, so you shouldn’t have to pay for it.
Instead of professionally cleaning it, clean it yourself. Use a vacuum, rub out the spots (if any), or rent a steam cleaner.
Even if your cats did destroy the carpet, or your frat parties made steam-cleaning a necessity, you still have rights. Your landlord needs to give you a list of security deposit deductions. He needs to explain why he deducted money from your deposit, and then refund you the rest.
And he needs to do all this within 21 days of your move-out date.
If, on the 22nd day after leaving the apartment, you still haven’t received either a 100 percent refund or a partial refund with an explanation attached, you can sue the landlord. You’re now entitled to a triple refund, plus the cost of hiring an attorney to help you.
Yes, you can go to small claims court, but it does not hurt to check with an attorney first to see if you have a good case. Because California law forces the landlord to pay a tenant’s attorney fees if the tenant wins, some attorneys would take your case on “contingency,” which means the attorney would not get paid unless he wins.
Regular courts are slow, though. California has the largest court system in the country — more judges than the federal judiciary, even — but perennial budget crises have crushed the court system. The Sacramento County Superior Court is still processing paperwork that people filed back in November, for example.
Small claims courts are quicker, simpler — and cheaper.
It costs a few hundred dollars to get a case going in Superior Court. In small claims, it costs you only $30 to $70. In Superior Court, your landlord can hire an attorney to represent him. In small claims, no lawyers are allowed to speak for the parties — you and your landlord will argue in front of the judge yourselves.
Students who need the security deposit quickly should write a demand letter to the landlord on the 21st day after move-out. Ask for a refund. If they don’t immediately give you a refund or a written explanation why they withheld your deposit, file a lawsuit in small claims court or contact an attorney that offers a free consultation.
Q: Got a “Watts Legal” question for you. What’s up with noncompete clauses in California? I ask because I used to work in the test-prep industry, which routinely stresses that employees (California employees) can be sued for thousands of dollars if they violate the noncompete clause in their contract. Are they groundlessly intimidating their employees, or can they actually get damages if an employee works for a competitor or poaches clients under the table?
— Claire V., Oakland
A: Noncompete clauses, which restrict an employee’s ability to work for other employers in the same field, are almost always unenforceable in California.
One of the reasons Santa Clara County became known as Silicon Valley is because Californians are free to move among tech companies. Boston, which has a similarly high concentration of universities but fewer Ciscos and Adobes, is less competitive, since Massachusetts companies can enforce noncompete clauses.
Employment contracts can ban employees from sharing trade secrets or soliciting clients of their former employer, though. Apple can’t stop an employee from leaving to work for Google, but they can stop that employee from telling Google secrets about the iPhone 6.
Daniel is a Sacramento attorney, former Davis City Council candidate, and graduate of UC Davis School of Law. He’ll answer questions sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeted to @governorwatts.