When an unlawful detainer (eviction) case is filed against you, the first step is to create, file, and serve an Answer. Our Tool will help you create an Answer that raises the defenses you may have to your eviction. It also helps you create other initial paperwork if you choose to, including a request to waive court fees and a request for a jury trial. After you complete the Tool, you will file and serve these documents yourself or, if you meet certain criteria, the Tool will offer to file and serve them on your behalf.
Filing an Answer is just the first step of the eviction case for a tenant. We recommend tenants try to get legal help and connect with their local tenants’ union as soon as possible so that they are best able to fight their case. However, in part because there are just not enough lawyers for all the tenants who need one, many tenants cannot find a lawyer. Tenant unions and community groups can provide help, but their resources are also limited. This guide is a short overview of what an eviction case looks like, what the different outcomes are, and how tenants can avoid certain pitfalls. It is meant to help tenants navigate a complex system on their own, but it is just a brief and general overview. We include additional links at the end to guides put together by other organizations, many of which are longer and more detailed.
I. Overview of the Eviction Process
Landlord Serves a Notice to Quit
When a landlord wants to evict a tenant, they must first give the tenant a Notice to Quit (a notice to move out) in writing. This can be a 3-Day, 15-Day, 30-Day, 60-Day or 90-Day, depending on the reason for eviction. If you don’t leave after the Notice to Quit expires, the landlord will need to file a case in court. It is illegal for the landlord to change the locks on their own. They can only evict you if they win the case or if you reach an agreement to move out.
Landlord Files an Eviction Case
An eviction case is filed against the tenant – the tenant should then be served with a “Summons" and “Complaint – Unlawful Detainer”. These are court documents that start the legal case against the tenant. A tenant typically has to respond to the case within 5 business days (not including weekends or certain holidays) after being served these documents. Not filing an Answer in time means the tenant might lose their case automatically.
Tenant Files an Answer
The Answer is not a place to present evidence – that will come later. However, you should raise any defenses that might apply to your case in your Answer. The defenses you have depend on where you live and what type of case was filed against you. It can be very hard to know what defenses might apply in your case and how to fill out the paperwork - the Tenant Power Toolkit helps you do this.
If a tenant doesn’t answer, a “default judgment” enters against the tenant. This means the landlord wins the case automatically. The tenant will then get a 5-Day Notice to Vacate posted on their door by the sheriff. The sheriff will come after the 5 days, evict the tenants, and change the locks. A default judgment shows up on your record – that’s why you must answer in time even if you think the case isn’t going forward or even if you are planning to move out.
The Eviction Case
If the tenant files an Answer, the case moves forward and many things can happen. The tenant might receive discovery requests. These documents ask the tenant to answer questions in writing. Tenants must respond to these requests in time, in some cases within just 5 calendar days. We explain more about discovery in Section II below.
The landlord may request a trial date. The court will then set a trial date. The tenant must then prepare for the trial and show up in court on the trial date to present evidence. If the tenant has requested a jury trial, the first “trial date” may be used to pick a new jury trial date in the future.
The landlord or the tenant might file a motion. A motion is a request that the court do something. Generally, a motion is written and filed by one side who also picks a day for that motion to be “heard” by the court.
One common motion is a “motion for summary judgment.” If the landlord files this motion, they are arguing that they should win the case before trial because there are no questions that need to be decided at trial. Tenants must attend any hearing scheduled by the court or risk losing their case. We explain more about motions in Section III below.
How Cases End
Most eviction cases end in settlement, meaning they don’t go to trial but instead end with everyone signing an agreement.
A tenant, or their lawyer, can negotiate with the landlord to reach an agreement. The agreement might be that the tenant stays and pays rent, or the agreement could give the tenant time, and (maybe) relocation assistance, to move out. Many cases also end with the landlord dismissing the case, or the court finding that either the landlord or the tenant should win even before a trial is held.
If a tenant does go all the way to trial and they win, the tenant stays and pays rent. The tenant does have the obligation to pay any rent due up through trial. Sometimes, the amount of rent paid by the tenant is reduced based on repairs/conditions issues at the property (this is decided during the trial). If the tenant loses at trial, the tenant gets a 5-Day Notice to Vacate from the sheriff and then is evicted if they have not moved by the date set in the 5-Day Notice to Vacate.
II. Discovery Requests
Discovery is the process in which one side requests (or “demands”) evidence that the other side will be using at trial. One side sends discovery requests and the other side must respond within 5 days if the requests were handed to you, 7 days if they were sent by overnight mail, or 10 days if they were sent by regular mail. You must check your mail and make sure to respond to any discovery requests that you get. If you don’t respond, the landlord will file a “motion to compel” asking the court to make (compel) you to respond to the discovery. At the hearing on this motion, the court may order you to pay a fine (“sanction”), say you can’t offer any evidence at trial, consider certain facts to be admitted (see the Requests for Admission section below), or even cancel your Answer and say you lost the case automatically for failing to participate. At the very least, you must complete and send over your responses to any Requests for Admission before the hearing on the motion to compel.
Below is an overview of how to respond to each type of request (depending on which ones you get from the landlord). Discovery responses should not be filed with the court - you just send your responses to the landlord or landlord’s lawyer.
Requests for Admission
Requests for Admission (RFAs) are statements written by the landlord or landlord’s lawyer that relate to the case. You must read each statement very carefully and decide if you are going to admit that it's true or deny that it’s true. You can respond with “admit”, “deny”, “admit in part” (if you agree with one part of the statement but not another), or deny because you don’t have sufficient information or belief to determine the truth or falsity of the statement. Be very careful not to admit something by mistake - read each statement multiple times to make sure you know what it’s saying. There are template responses and further instructions here.
It is very important that you respond to Requests for Admission in time. If you do not respond within the deadline, these statements will be “deemed admitted.” This means the court will now act as if you admitted to the truth of all of the statements in the requests (even if the statements aren’t true!). This will make it much easier for the landlord to win the case, probably even before trial.
Interrogatories - Special or Form
Interrogatories are just questions that the other side has to answer. “Special” interrogatories are ones that were written out for this case. You must respond to every special interrogatory that is asked. “Form” interrogatories use either the general or unlawful detainer forms that list out a bunch of common questions. You must respond to every question with a check mark next to it. You can ignore any questions where the box next to it is left unchecked.
When writing your responses, remember to answer each part of every question. You can use this template to create your responses to form interrogatories for unlawful detainers (the template begins on page 8). More general templates and instructions are found here for form interrogatories and here for special interrogatories.
If a question is totally irrelevant to the case it would be an unnecessarily big burden to collect all of the evidence it asks for, you (the Responding Party) can object instead of answering the question, for example by saying, “Objection, Responding Party objects to this demand on the basis that it is irrelevant, overbroad, unduly burdensome, oppressive, and intended to vex, annoy, and harass Responding Party.” A short list of common objections is found here. If you don’t know the answer to something, you can say “Responding Party is unable to respond to this interrogatory as information requested is not within their personal knowledge.” You should answer fully whenever possible, and use this chance to tell your side of the story. Responding in time is most important, so try to get something down and send back your responses quickly when you’re short on time.
Demand for Production of Documents or Demand for Inspection and Copying
These are a set of requests to “produce” (send over copies of) the documents and other evidence you plan to use in your case. You can respond to each request by saying you will include all relevant documents, you cannot comply with the request because you have no documents that are relevant to the question, or you object to the request. You can object, for example, if the request is unclear or it would be an unnecessarily big burden to collect all of the evidence it asks for (a short list of common objections is found here). There are template responses and further instructions here.
In the “response” itself (what’s provided in the templates at the link above), you just say whether you’re providing documents in response to each request or not. After filling out one of these templates and responding to each request, you will then attach copies of all of your actual evidence (documents, photos, receipts, text messages, emails, letters, reports, etc.) to the back of your response.
Be careful to include copies and not originals. Remember to include everything that you will use, or even might use, at trial.
III. Motion for Summary Judgment
A motion is a request that the court do something. A motion for summary judgment is filed by a “moving party” (the side who filed the motion) who wants to win the case before trial. The motion will try to convince the judge that there’s no way for the other side to win at trial - basically, there are no questions that need to be answered at trial and all the established facts show that they should win now. For example, if the landlord is trying to evict the tenant for violating the lease and the tenant admitted to violating the lease in their discovery responses, the landlord might file a motion for summary judgment. A tenant might oppose (fight) this type of motion with evidence showing that the landlord gave permission to the tenant to do that.
If your landlord filed a motion for summary judgment, you will be “served” (mailed) a copy of the motion. You should read it carefully and note the date and time of the court hearing on the motion. You must attend the hearing to avoid losing your case. You should take all the evidence you have with you.
You can also oppose the landlord’s motion for summary judgment by filing a declaration. A declaration is a signed statement of facts - the written equivalent to testifying in court on the witness stand. You can create a declaration using the form here. Fill out the information at the top of the page. Then, under “Declaration,” write out everything in the landlord’s motion that you disagree with. Include as many specific details and dates as you can remember. You should write out every fact you know which shows that the landlord should not win the case automatically - any fact that goes against what the landlord is claiming or any fact related to your defenses in the case. Don’t forget to sign and date the declaration at the bottom. Before the hearing, you should file this declaration with the court and have someone serve (mail or email) it to the landlord or landlord’s lawyer. You can file multiple declarations (from different people) as well. You can attach evidence to the back of the declaration as well.
Remember, the landlord has to prove that there’s no doubt that they should win in order for the judge to grant their motion for summary judgment. All you need to do is raise a doubt about the facts of the case and show that there are matters that need to be decided at trial. If the judge only gets the landlord’s side of the story, there’s a good change they can win the motion - that’s why it’s important to attend the hearing and file a declaration, if you can. Motions for summary judgment are often complicated and can be difficult to properly fight, so you should always seek legal help if possible.
IV. Settlement Agreements
Most cases end with settlement agreements - both sides write down what they agree to, sign the agreement, and file the agreement with the court. There are two types of settlement agreements: ones where the tenant stays in the unit and pays any owed rent (maybe a reduced amount, maybe under a payment plan) and ones where the tenant agrees to move out. You can reach a settlement agreement at any point in the case, even up to the trial. You can request a settlement conference (a court hearing where the parties see if they can reach an agreement) if the court doesn’t automatically set one.
The type of agreement you’re able to reach will depend on the strength of the landlord’s case and any defenses you have. Take a look at the Answer you created using the Tenant Power Toolkit. Try to research the laws in your area and understand what tenant protections might apply to you. Knowing your arguments will help you reach a better deal - generally, landlords don’t want to pay their lawyers for a trial! Settlements are back-and-forth negotiations - you don’t have to accept the first agreement the landlord proposes. Below are some considerations to keep in mind when negotiating with the landlord or landlord’s lawyer (this is not a full list, but just a couple of the important questions to ask yourself in a settlement).
Will you move or stay in the unit? If you choose to move, the landlord will win the case now but won’t be able to evict you until the date you agree to. Remember to only agree if you are getting enough time to move - once an agreement has been filed with the court, it must be followed exactly and is very, very hard to change. After you sign an agreement to move out, you probably will have to move by the date on the agreement and you won’t be able to get more time to move, even if you haven’t found a new place to go.
If you are moving, will you give up your security deposit?
If you are staying, how will you pay any rent owed? Will the rent amount you owe be reduced? How will you be paying this rent - with a payment plan or at one time?
Attorney’s fees and costs: Is each side paying their own fees and costs? A landlord might try to say you have to pay their fees, but you can fight for an agreement where each side pays their own fees and costs.
Relocation assistance: A tenant may be able to get money from a settlement agreement where they’re agreeing to move out. If the landlord has no valid reason to evict the tenant or is trying to evict the tenant even though the tenant did nothing wrong (for example, the landlord wants to move into the property), the tenant may be entitled to relocation assistance under local tenant protections or under the statewide Tenant Protection Act. Relocation amounts under these laws range from one month’s rent to over $20,000 or more, so you should try to research the laws in your area or speak to an attorney. If the settlement agreement includes relocation assistance to the tenant, make sure the agreement states the amount and the date it has to be paid by. You can ask for the relocation assistance to be paid before you move out - that way you can use it for your moving expenses.
Waiver of rent: Often (depending on how much rent the tenant owes and how strong their case is), a landlord will agree to give up any rent owed by the tenant if the tenant is agreeing to move out. Remember, by moving out, you are at least saving your landlord the cost of a trial and you’re guaranteeing that they’ll get the unit - the landlord could lose even after paying for a trial. Here is sample language to include in an agreement where the landlord agrees to give up any rent debt: “Plaintiff waives all unpaid rent and holdover damages due, owing, and coming due through the date Defendant surrenders possession. Plaintiff further agrees to waive any and all other fees and charges, leaving Defendant with a zero ($0) balance owed to Plaintiff upon surrender of possession.”
Sealing the record: It’s important that the agreement “seals” your case - that way, the eviction won’t show up on your record when you’re looking for a new place and shouldn’t affect your credit. Here is some sample language to include in the agreement: “File Sealed/No Reporting: File to remain sealed unconditionally, regardless of performance of any other term. Plaintiff shall not make a negative report to any third party regarding Defendant’s tenancy or credit.”
V. Trial and Other Resources
A trial is an in-court proceeding where evidence is presented in a particular way and a decision is reached about the outcome of the case. A bench trial (or non-jury trial) is a trial where the outcome is decided by a judge. A jury trial is a trial where the outcome (all question about what actually happened) are decided by a jury - a group of everyday people who are selected for the case. Jury trials usually take longer to schedule and longer to complete. You may be required to file “jury documents” before the trial if you are having a jury trial - these include a list of exhibits, list of witnesses, list of instructions for the jury, and list of questions for the jury to decide (the verdict form).
Most eviction cases do not go to trial (they are settled, dismissed, or won before trial with something like a motion for summary judgment). Trials can be challenging to prepare for and very complicated, so we’ve compiled a list of self-help resources below. These resources also include more in-depth guides on other topics, which you can use to better prepare for your eviction case.