Law School Case Brief
Green v. Superior Court of S.F. - 10 Cal. 3d 616, 111 Cal. Rptr. 704, 517 P.2d 1168 (1974)
A warranty of habitability is implied by law in residential leases and the breach of such a warranty may be raised as a defense in an unlawful detainer action. Under the implied warranty, a residential landlord covenants that premises he leases for living quarters will be maintained in a habitable state for the duration of the lease. This implied warranty of habitability does not require that a landlord ensure that leased premises are in perfect, aesthetically pleasing condition, but it does mean that "bare living requirements" must be maintained. In most cases substantial compliance with those applicable building and housing code standards which materially affect health and safety will suffice to meet the landlord's obligations under the common law implied warranty of habitability.
On Sept. 27, 1972, the landlord Jack Sumski commenced an unlawful detainer action in the San Francisco Small Claims Court seeking possession of the leased premises and $ 300 in back rent. Petitioner Green, the tenant, admitted nonpayment of rent but defended the action on the ground that the landlord had failed to maintain the leased premises in a habitable condition. The small claims court awarded possession of the premises to the landlord and entered a money judgment for $ 225 against Green. Green then appealed the decision to respondent Superior Court of San Francisco where a de novo trial was held pursuant to section 117j of the Code of Civil Procedure. In support of his claim of uninhabitability, Green submitted a copy of an Oct. 1972 inspection report of the San Francisco Department of Public Works ("Department") disclosing some 80 housing code violations in the building in question, as well as an order of the Department scheduling a condemnation hearing for Jan. 19, 1973. In addition, Green and his roommate detailed a long list of serious defects in the premises that had not been repaired by the landlord after notice and which they claimed rendered the premises uninhabitable. Some of the more serious defects described by Green included: (1) the collapse and nonrepair of the bathroom ceiling; (2) the continued presence of rats, mice, and cockroaches on the premises; (3) the lack of any heat in four of the apartment's rooms; (4) plumbing blockages; (5) exposed and faulty wiring, and; (6) an illegally installed and dangerous stove. The landlord did not attempt to contest the presence of serious defects in the leased premises, but instead claimed that such defects afforded Green no defense in an unlawful detainer action. The superior court judge ultimately agreed with the landlord's contention, holding that the "repair and deduct" provisions of Civil Code section 1941 et seq. constituted Green's exclusive remedy under the circumstances. Green appealed.
Could Green, the tenant, assert an affirmative defense of the landlord's breach of the implied warranty of habitability in the landlord's unlawful detainer action?
The state supreme court reversed the order of the trial court, which awarded the landlord back rent and possession of the premises. The court held that Green could assert an affirmative defense of the landlord's breach of the implied warranty of habitability in the unlawful detainer action. The court held that the defense could establish a tenant's continued right to possession of the premises because the tenant's duty to pay rent was held mutually dependent upon the landlord's fulfillment of his implied warranty of habitability. The court based its ruling on the rationale that the historical prohibition on such a defense was inconsistent with modern landlord-tenant relations and held that the provisions of Cal. Civ. Code § 1941 et seq. were intended to supplement rather than supplant common law rights. The court remanded for the trial court to determine whether the landlord breached the implied warranty of habitability and, if so, to determine the damages from the breach measured by the fair rental value of the premises if they had been as warranted compared with the value in their actual condition. Thus, the court issued a peremptory writ of mandate, which directed the lower court to vacate the judgment entered below, and remanded for trial of the landlord's unlawful detainer action against Green.
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