Supervisor Aaron Peskin will present a resolution to the Board of Supervisors today calling for the City Attorney’s office to weigh in on a controversial tenant’s rights case currently on its way to the California Supreme Court. The outcome of the case, Action Apartment Association vs. City of Santa Monica, could potentially make wrongful eviction lawsuits far more difficult, opening the door for landlords to harass, threaten, and evict tenants without providing them legal recourse. Peskin’s resolution represents an important front on the battle to ensure the court rules on the side of the tenants and protects renter’s rights both here and throughout the state.
Action Apartment Association vs. City of Santa Monica began when Santa Monica passed legislation barring landlords from harassing tenants, including providing them with eviction notices of dubious legality. Landlords promptly assaulted the legislation, claiming it void because it fell under the category of ‘litigation privilege.’
Litigation privilege essentially means that you can’t sue someone for suing you. Developed to prevent back and forth volleys of derivative litigation ad infinitum, the category has been greatly expanded in recent years, and now threatens to move its way into a vital area of tenant/landlord law.
Initially, the Superior Court upheld Santa Monica’s anti-harassment law. But the Court of Appeals overturned this decision. Should the Supreme Court uphold this ruling, it could set the stage for a severe erosion of tenants’ rights.
Most importantly, upholding the ruling would place major restrictions on tenants being able to sue for wrongful eviction. For example, landlords would be free to present tenants with eviction notices claiming the landlord wants to move into their unit. Under the Court of Appeals decision, even if the landlord had no intention of moving into the unit when they served the notice, tenants would be handcuffed from suing for wrongful eviction.
“It’s carte blanche for illegal evictions,” said tenant’s rights attorney Steve Collier. “If you can’t sue for wrongful evictions, you’re encouraging landlords to give illegal or wrongful evictions, because they get the windfall of the vacant unit if they succeed.”
Tenants’ Union head Ted Gullicksen agrees, dubbing the Court of Appeals decision, “another example of the courts trampling on tenants rights.”
“Most cities tenant and consumer groups have come out strongly against the court of appeals decision,” Gullicksen added.
Now, as the case heads to the Supreme Court, Peskin hopes a brief from the San Francisco City Attorney’s office in support of Santa Monica could help the tenants’ case. Because our city has a law on the books similarly to Santa Monica’s contested legislation, the city attorney here could write a brief defending local legislation that would serve as an argument against the Court of Appeals decision in the Supreme Court.
“What we’re hoping to do with the request is get the city attorney to file an amicus brief,” said Peskin legislative aide David Owen. “We want to bring this case to his attention and let him know a majority – maybe even a supermajority – of the Board of Supervisors would support his taking a position.”
Tenant advocates support Peskin’s request, seeing the stakes as incredibly high and any potential attempt at influencing the result towards the tenants as worthwhile. Should the Supreme Court rule in favor of the recent Court of Appeals decision, they agree, the statewide ramifications could be disastrous.
“We’re hoping the Supreme Court will do the right thing,” said Collier. “But think it’s very important that the city does this.”