Who Can Prosecute An Unlawful Detainer Action In California?

In general, owners and lessors of rental property are proper plaintiffs an unlawful detainer action filed against their tenants. Property owners often give property management companies or other agents the authority to handle day-to-day affairs of the rental, including entering into a written agreements authorizing an agent to execute leases, collect rents, and recover possession of the property from defaulting tenants. Can these agents file a lawsuit as a plaintiff on the property owner’s behalf?

The starting point for the analysis is a legal doctrine called “standing” In general, a party has standing to prosecute a lawsuit if he or she qualifies as the “real party in interest” — the person who owns or holds title to the claim or property involved. In the context of an Unlawful Detainer case, that usually means that the owner/lessor of the rental property can and should be named as a Plaintiff in an eviction case.

The general rule is that a landlord owner’s agent (such as a property manager) has no inherent authority to sue in the agent’s own name as “real party in interest.” There are, however, a few notable exceptions to this rule. Specifically, the agent for the person who has title to the claim or property involved can sue on that claim if that person assigned his, her or its interest to the agent. As assignee, the agent would be the real party in interest (party owning the claim of right to possession) and thus is entitled to maintain the Unlawful Detainer in his/her or its own name. Although there is no California law directly on point addressing the validity of an assignment in the context of an unlawful detainer action, assignment law principles decided in other contexts provide support for this position.

Moreover, though technically not the “real party in interest,” an agent would have standing to sue if the lease or rental agreement was entered into in the agent’s name. Accordingly, under agency law, an agent should have standing to file an Unlawful Detainer if the landlord gave the agent written authority to sue and retake possession in the agent’s own name.

Pursuant to the above general rules the Unlawful Detainer complaint filed in the name of a property management company must allege: (1) Its status (individual, partnership, corporation, etc.; (2) that it is a party to the lease or rental agreement (or, assignee or authorized agent of the principal’s interest), and (3) if suing as a party to the lease or rental agreement, that it executed the lease/rental agreement in its own name for the principal’s benefit pursuant to a management agreement with the principal, detailing the means by which the authority was conferred. Standing issue should be considered and analyzed before filing suit against the tenant.

Standing is a threshold inquiry the court will decide at the outset of the case. If the court finds the plaintiff lacks standing to bring the action, the result will be a dismissal of the action, requiring Plaintiff to incur additional costs and fees to refile the case in the name of the proper party.

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