Knowing how to prevent yourself from being haunted by an old civil lawsuit requires knowing if the court has special rules for storing records on your type of court case. One of the most common types of lawsuits in California is the unlawful detainer, commonly known as an eviction.
To understand how the records of a dismissed court case can cause haunt you consider the following scenario.
Three friends, Oscar, Oliver, and Dave decide to rent an apartment together. All three sign the lease. Oscar and Oliver pay their share of the rent to the landlord on time. Dave is a deadbeat and does not pay his rent. Oscar and Oliver cannot afford to cover his share. So the landlord files an unlawful detainer lawsuit against all three friends. Oliver moves out and goes to look for a studio apartment. Oscar is scared that the pending lawsuit will cause him to be rejected by other landlords, so he decides to stay in the apartment with Dave and fight the lawsuit.
When a typical civil case is filed in court it becomes part of the public record and is often reported by credit reporting agencies. Because tenants were experiencing extreme difficulty renting after being a defendant in an eviction action, California established protections that limit what and when information about unlawful detainer lawsuits become part of the public record.
The first level of protection comes from a temporary seal preventing disclosure of information related to an eviction case for the first 60 days after the eviction action is filed in court. Temporarily sealing the record during this time gives a tenant, such as Oscar, a 60-day period to find another living situation without being unfairly prejudiced by the pending lawsuit. After the 60-day period, the fact that a lawsuit was filed and the outcome becomes part of the public record; which means it can be reported by credit agencies and become part of a background check— unless the second level of protection kicks in.
The second level of protection becomes available if the case is dismissed or the tenant wins the within 60 days after the case is filed (during the temporary sealing period), the court record is permanently sealed. So if Dave pays the past due rent and the landlord drops the lawsuit within the first 60 days, the court will order the records to be sealed and future landlords will not be aware of the prior lawsuit. This protection prevents tenants who successfully defend themselves or quickly resolve the lawsuit from being denied housing in the future because of a past meritless eviction lawsuit.
It is important for defendant’s in unlawful detainer action to follow-up with the court to make sure that any records that should be sealed are actually sealed. If you cannot seal the record of the lawsuit as discussed in Part One of this series, you can limit or even prevent a credit agency from reporting it as discussed in Part Three.
Melanie Bronny holds a juris doctor from the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law. Mathew Higbee Esq. contributed to this article.