Lara v. Menchini (2021): Appellate Division of San Francisco Superior Court Affirm’s Landlord’s Ability To Reject Coerced Creation of Rent-Controlled Subtenancy Following Rent Default

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“When Menchini failed to pay the rent for February and March 2019 before the three-day notice to pay rent or quit expired, he forfeited the lease, and the landlord was entitled to possession as against the sublessee. Lara was not required to accept rent from Menchini’s subtenants. (See Civ. Code, § 1947.3, subd. (a)(3)(A) [‘A landlord . . . is not required to accept the rent payment tendered by a third party unless the third party has provided to the landlord . . . a signed acknowledgment stating that they are not currently a tenant of the premises for which the rent payment is being made and that acceptance of the rent payment does not create a new tenancy with the third party.’]. Had Lara accepted rent directly from the subtenants without such a signed acknowledgment from them, she may have inadvertently created a new tenant-landlord relationship with them.”

In Lara v. Menchini, a landlord prosecuted an unlawful detainer for non-payment of rent, following non-payment by the master tenant. Subtenants approached the landlord in response to her initial rent demand, attempting to pay their rent directly to her. She refused.

The landlord prevailed at trial and the subtenants appealed on the basis that unlawful detainer law and Civil Code §1947.3 required her to accept their rent to cure the notice. The court of appeal rejected this contention.

It held that the non-payment of a master tenant effected the forfeiture of the lease, except in previous, distinguishable cases, where the landlord demanded rent from the subtenants. Further, Civil Code §1947.3 (which allows third party rent payers to help tenants avoid default) did not apply, because the landlord was permitted to require that they declare they are not “occupants”. (After all, occupancy coupled with payment of rent to the landlord creates a tenancy.)

Of course, the subtext of this dispute is that the subtenants were attempting to usurp their departed master tenant’s rent control, but without a basis for doing so. The court concluded that the landlord was entitled to demand the subtenants enter a new lease at market rent if they were going to remain in possession and then to proceed in unlawful detainer, when they declined.