Can my ex-roommate withhold my personal belongings because she thinks that I owe her money?

She is keeping my stuff claiming that I owe her money from when she took care of my cat, but she never asked me for any money beforehand, nor the entire time I lived with her. I originally planned on paying her for that of my own free will when we were on good terms, however she went back on an agreement we had made before i moved out, that she would help me out if anything happened and I needed to move. She neither helped me fly to my old state nor gave money towards my deposit. So I told her it wouldn’t make sense for me to reimburse her anymore and she’s not holding up her end. Now she’s basically stealing from me. What can I do?

Asked on June 13, 2017 under Business Law, California

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 3 years ago | Contributor

She is not "basically" stealing from you--she IS stealing from you. You can report this as theft to the police--they may help, and should help since it is a crime, but sometimes don't, believing (incorrectly) that it is "civil" dispute, not a criminal action. (In reality, they often simply don't want to bother with matters like this.) If the police will not help, your recourse would be to sue her for the property's return. Note if there is nothing there of great sentimental value, it is procedurally easier, quicker, and cheaper to sue for the property's value, rather than seeking a court order requiring the return of these specific items.
If she believes you owe her money, her legal recourse is to sue you for it; if she could prove there was an agreement to pay her for cat sitting (and only if she could prove there was such an agreement), she would be entitled to compensation.
Of course, if you are in a different state, it is not easy to sue someone, and you would have at some point (if the matter does not settle voluntarily) to travel to her state even if you hired a local lawyer (the lawyer cannot testify as to the facts, not having personal knowledge of them; you would have to). Therefore, you may wish to let her keep your belongings unless there are considerable value, rather than go through a cross-state lawsuit.


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