In today's headlines, it is all too easy to find examples of undocumented residents being targeted for unfair treatment, singled out, and taken advantage of. It would be easy to assume that legal protections are not available to prevent such treatment. However, there are in fact many California laws specifically written to protect tenants regardless of their citizenship or immigration status and set forth special penalties for discriminating against immigrants regardless of how they came to live in California. Learning about these laws and making sure that anyone who might benefit from their protections can be one of the best ways to prevent such unfair treatment, wherever you might find it.
Attorneys Cannot Ask About Immigration Status
First and foremost, it is important to note that there are limits on what an attorney can introduce as evidence in a trial, or even ask about as part of the discovery process that gathers evidence to be used at trial. According to California Evidence Code Section 351.2, “(a) In a civil action for personal injury or wrongful death, evidence of a person's immigration status shall not be admitted into evidence, nor shall discovery into a person's immigration status be permitted.” Since most tenant rights cases involve personal injury of some kind, this limitation can prohibit a landlord's attorney from prying into the immigration status of a tenant or any other witnesses. There are similar, specific protections elsewhere in California law, including Civil Code Section 3339, Government Code Section 7285, Health and Safety Code Section 24000, and Labor Code Section 1171.5, which relate to cases involving civil rights, as well as housing and employment law.
State Law Forbids Using Immigration Status to Harass a Tenant
There are multiple state laws intended to prevent a landlord from using a tenant's immigration status against them to intimidate or force them to move or give up their rights. Civil Code Section 1940.2(5) makes it unlawful to threaten to disclose information regarding or relating to the immigration or citizenship status of a tenant, occupant, or other person known to the landlord to be associated with a tenant or occupant.” Doing so could result in a damages award of up to $2,000.00 for every violation. And according to Civil Code Section 1940.35(a) It is unlawful for a landlord to disclose to any immigration authority, law enforcement agency, or local, state, or federal agency information regarding or relating to the immigration or citizenship status of any tenant, occupant, or other person known to the landlord to be associated with a tenant or occupant, for the purpose of, or with the intent of, harassing or intimidating a tenant or occupant, retaliating against a tenant or occupant for the exercise of his or her rights, influencing a tenant or occupant to vacate a dwelling, or recovering possession of the dwelling. The court can award as damages the actual costs resulting from the landlord's disclosure, as well as six to twelve months of rent for the rental unit. Additionally, the Court must award attorney's fees to the prevailing party. Up to $2,000.00 in damages for retaliating against a tenant for reporting uninhabitable conditions to the landlord or a public official are also available if a landlord threatens to report a tenant's immigration status to immigration authorities.
The Fair Employment and Housing Act
The Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) offers protection to tenants against the unlawful practices of landlords by broadly prohibiting housing discrimination in the seeking, obtaining, and holding of housing based on a person's protected class, including but not limited to immigration status. Cal. Gov. Code § 12921(b), (d). Discriminatory housing practices made unlawful by the FEHA include the refusal to rent or lease; refusal to negotiate for a rental or lease; representation that housing is not available for rental when it is in fact so available; any other denial or withholding of housing accommodations; provision of inferior housing terms, conditions, privileges, facilities or services; harassment in connection with housing accommodations; cancellation or termination of rental agreement; and provision of segregated or separated housing accommodations. Id. § 12927(c)(1). It is also a violation of the FEHA to harass, evict or otherwise discriminate against any person in the sale or rental of housing when the “dominant purpose” is retaliation against a person who has opposed practices unlawful under the Act, informed law enforcement of practices believed to be unlawful under the Act, testified or assisted in any FEHA proceeding, or aided or encouraged a person to exercise or enjoy rights secured by the Act. Id. § 12955(f). In a FEHA civil suit, if the court finds a discriminatory housing practice has occurred or is about to occur, it may award plaintiff actual and punitive damages; and “other relief . . . as it deems appropriate to prevent any defendant from engaging in or continuing to engage in an unlawful practice.” Id. § 12989.2. The court may also, in its discretion, award the prevailing party reasonable attorney fees and costs, including expert witness fees. Id.
Local Ordinances Also Provide Protections
Several local governments have also taken their own steps to prevent landlords from using tenants' immigration status against them. For example, San Francisco's Tenant Harassment Ordinance makes it unlawful for a landlord or an agent of the landlord to "[v]iolate any law which prohibits discrimination based on actual or perceived race, . . . ethnic background, nationality, place of birth, immigration or citizenship status,” or [r]equest information that violates a tenant's right to privacy, including but not limited to residence or citizenship status or social security number.” S.F., Cal. Admin. Code § 37.10B(a)(9) & (14). Similar tenant anti-harassment ordinances protect immigrants in Berkeley, Oakland, and Los Angeles, among other.
In sum, in California, if a landlord is failing to live up to their obligations under a rental agreement, the tenant's immigration status is irrelevant and none of the landlord's business.
If you or someone you know has had a landlord ask about a tenant's actual or perceived immigration status, threaten to report a tenant to immigration authorities or discriminate against a tenant on the basis of the tenant's actual or perceived immigration status consider consulting with a tenant rights attorney. Enforcing anti-discrimination and harassment laws is the best way to eradicate these types of behaviors and make California, now with a majority-minority population, a more just and equal state.