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Davis, California

Friday, March 1, 2024

Column: Watt’s Legal

Cut out this column and post it on your refrigerator. Every week, I’ll answer legal questions involving students and student-related issues. If you’ve got a legal question, I’ve got a legal answer; I’m a lawyer, after all. I’m also a graduate of UC Davis School of Law, so I’m especially committed to helping out Davis students.

Let’s get things started with a few questions that come up a lot. If you’ve got your own questions, email me at governorwatts@gmail.com or tweet @governorwatts and I’ll answer them in a future column.

Question: There’s a bar in Sacramento that turns into a nightclub on weekends. On “ladies night,” women get in free but guys still have to pay $15. Is this legal?

Answer: Ladies’ nights are absolutely illegal in California. And yes, you can sue them — for $4,000 in automatic damages.

California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act prohibits California’s businesses from discriminating against people on the basis of sex, among other things. A person who suffers discrimination in violation of the Unruh Act is entitled to $4,000 in statutory minimum damages. These damages are the minimum that a court can award.

While $4,000 might seem excessive for something like a ladies’ night, there’s a good reason for statutory damages. Acts of discrimination often fail to cause any harm that’s easy to calculate in terms of money.

Why does this apply to ladies’ nights?

Ladies’ nights are discriminatory if they give discounts to women but not men (or men but not women).

Question: Does our landlord need to give us a few days notice if he brings people over to look at our apartment, or can he just call last minute and say, “By the way, I’m showing the place in less than an hour?”

Answer:

The landlord has to give you “reasonable” notice — in writing — before entering your apartment to show it to a new tenant. The written notice must include the date, approximate time and purpose of the entry. Twenty-four hours is usually “reasonable,” unless there’s evidence to the contrary. He should enter only during normal business hours — no 4:00 a.m. surprise visits.

A landlord can’t abuse his right of access or use it to harass or repeatedly disturb the tenants, according to California Civil Code Section 1954(c). He can’t keep intentionally violating these access rules to influence you to move out, either. If you can show a court that he’s repeatedly entering your apartment to harass you or influence you to move out, you can sue the landlord in small claims court for $2,000 for each violation.

Question: My lease ended on Jan. 1. My landlord is refusing to return my security deposit. He says I need to collect it from the new tenant who’s replacing me. I don’t want to have to deal with whoever the new person is. Can the landlord make me do this?

Answer: No, your landlord can’t make you chase after the new tenants for the security deposit. That’s illegal.

Within 21 days of you vacating the apartment, the landlord must refund your security deposit — to you. If he doesn’t, or he refunds only part of it, he has to tell you why he did that. He needs to mail or personally hand to you an itemized list of the amounts of any deductions and the reasons for the deductions. He should also include copies of documents showing the charges incurred to restore the apartment to the condition it was in when you first moved in.

The portion of the security deposit that wasn’t necessary to return the apartment to its original condition must be returned to you by the landlord. 

Why can’t the landlord tell you to get this from the new tenant?

 Because you don’t have a contract with the new tenant. You’ve probably never met the new tenant. The new tenant has no idea how clean the apartment was when you first moved in, so he has no way of refunding you the correct amount.

Question: It costs 50 cents to use a credit card at the coffee shop near my house. Arco charges 50 cents to use a debit card, but refuses to take credit cards. Mishka’s says they’re offering a “cash discount” that disappears when I use a credit card. Are these things legal?

Answer: Mishka’s, yes. Unnamed coffee shop, no. Arco, yes.

Debit fees are okay, but credit card fees are not.

Merchants can’t charge a fee when you use a credit card — it violates California Civil Code section 1748.1. If they charge you a fee to use a credit card, keep your receipt. Then write them a letter — using certified mail — and demand a refund of the fee. Include a copy of the receipt in your letter. If they don’t give you a refund within a few weeks, you can sue them for a triple refund plus attorney fees.

Merchants can offer a discount to customers paying with cash. Not many merchants set this up correctly, though. But there are very few published court opinions on this topic because the potential payout is only a couple bucks. The dearth of controlling cases makes it difficult to say with certainty whether a “cash discount” sign is legal.  Signs that say “50 cent fee for credit card” are definitely illegal.

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 governorwatts@gmail.com or tweeted to @governorwatts.

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