The bankruptcy process helps people who cannot make all of their required debt payments with their available income. It allows them, in Chapter 13 cases, to create a manageable payment schedule, or to pay down their debts by liquidating assets in Chapter 7. At the end of the case, the court may grant a discharge of some or all remaining debts. Of course, payments on debts, such as mortgages, credit cards, and student loans, are not the only regular financial obligations people must maintain. Most people also have monthly bills for utilities, cellular phones and internet, and other services. People who do not own their homes must also pay rent, which can be a tricky aspect of personal bankruptcy.
A recent article in the Los Angeles Times described ways that tenants can “game” the eviction system. In addition to various courtroom tactics, the article mentioned bankruptcy as a means of delaying eviction. This only tells one small part of the story. If stalling an eviction is an individual’s primary goal, a bankruptcy filing is perhaps the least efficient way of doing it. The automatic stay in a bankruptcy case, 11 U.S.C. § 362, has the effect of staying any pending court case, including most evictions, but the relationship between bankruptcy and eviction under California law is much more complicated than that.
The legal term for eviction in California is an action for “unlawful detainer.” Cal. Civ. Pro. Code § 1161. A tenant commits unlawful detainer if they continue to occupy leased premises after the expiration of the lease, or if they default on their rent obligation and fail to vacate the premises three days after the landlord gives written notice with instructions on how to cure the default. The landlord must file a verified complaint alleging unlawful detainer and, if the eviction is based on a default, stating the amount of rent owed. Id. at § 1166. Eviction cases occur on a faster timeline than other lawsuits. The tenant must file an answer within five days of receipt of the complaint, or risk a default judgment. Id. at §§ 1167, 1169.