Carla Lehman of Vallejo said she was determined to fight for her security deposit no matter what.

There was a principle involved, she said. Not to mention $1,100.

Lehman said her security deposit was denied after moving out of a rental, by a landlord who is also a lawyer.

The landlord, she said, claimed she'd damaged the property and violated parts of her rental agreement entitling him to keep the deposit. She said the allegations were invented to give the landlord an excuse to keep her deposit.

Lehman's former landlord did not return calls for comment.

"He was charging me for things I didn't do and for sewer payments he was supposed to make," she said. "I fought back. I wasn't going to take it."

"I left that place looking better than when I moved in, but he charged us for carpet cleaning, when I did it myself," she said. "He charged us for garbage in the backyard that I wasn't responsible for, for broken blinds that weren't broken."

Lehman, a mother of two, said she lived in the rental for eight months.

"I got pregnant and we needed a bigger place," she said. "Now, we're in a house."

She said she took the case to small claims court, and won. Lehman got her money back and said she wants people to know "that they can also fight back" if they're in the right.

Lehman's story is all too familiar to Legal Services of Northern California, Solano County attorney Bob Stalker.

"It's extremely common," Stalker said. "We see several of these problems weekly and sometimes daily. We see it all over Solano County, but I also hear it from friends and acquaintances in San Francisco, Oakland, all over."

Stalker said his office, which deals only with low-income Solano County residents, typically recommends former tenants take their cases to small claims court, where one can sue for up to $7,500.

However, he added, these cases usually boil down to he said/she said situations, and problems can best be avoided by taking some precautions in advance.

"The best thing to do is a thorough inspection with the landlord before moving in," Stalker said. "And before moving out, you're entitled to a walk-through with the landlord."

Photos and witnesses can also be helpful, he said.

Most security deposit cases involve disputes about things like carpet cleaning, paint or minor damage, but occasionally one runs into a landlord who seeks to cheat tenants on purpose, he said.

"There are some bad actors out there," Stalker said.

And there are legal remedies in those cases, he said.

"There are penalties for bad faith withholding of security deposits, in cases where the landlord is ignoring the rules," Stalker said.

Bad faith can mean a situation involving malice, or of claiming something to which the landlord has no right, he said.

"The most common example is when a landlord simply fails to return the deposit and fails to give an accounting for why not," he said.

The penalty for a landlord found to be acting in bad faith, is up to twice the amount of the deposit, Stalker said.

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