On August 3, 2020, in a trial that was halted earlier this year due to the corona virus, the Court heard closing arguments concerning the validity of an Ellis Act eviction. Our firm represented the tenant. The landlord’s law firm that we were up against is one of the largest law firms in the United States with over 1,500 attorneys.
After asking numerous questions during a long two hours of closing arguments, Judge Teresa A. Beaudet of the Los Angeles Superior Court announced her decision in favor of our tenant client.
It is exceedingly difficult for a tenant to defeat a landlord’s Ellis Act eviction. Our success at trial came after more than two years of intensive litigation that included approximately 15 days of depositions, numerous subpoenas for third-party documents, and the use of California’s version of the Freedom of Information Act (the California Public Records Act), and eight pre-trial hearings on 14 motions the landlord filed to exclude evidence at trial. This was an important win because the Phase 1 Trial to the Court sitting without a jury on the issue of the validity of the landlord’s Ellis Act eviction notice clears the path to the Court conducting a Phase 2 jury trial. The jury trial is expected to last 20 days. The jury will decide our tenant client’s claims for general and punitive damages, and for attorneys’ fees. The essential facts of the case are described below.
This is an unusual case for our firm. That’s because it involves a residential tenancy instead of commercial property.
The landlord’s Ellis Act application and related paperwork had been approved in 2017 by the City of Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (“Housing Department”). Based on the Housing Department’s approval, the landlord filed an unlawful detainer eviction lawsuit in 2018. Our firm, however, had filed a civil lawsuit a few days earlier. On the eve of trial in the landlord’s unlawful detainer eviction case, the Court granted our request to stay the landlord’s eviction case pending the outcome of our client’s civil lawsuit.
Our client is in her late 70’s. She has lived in the same rent-controlled apartment since 1984. The unit is in the upscale Miracle Mile – North area of Los Angeles where the vintage 1920’s buildings are within the City’s Historic Preservation Zone. Due to over thirty years of rent control, our tenant client pays only a little more than $1,300 per month in rent. In contrast, similar apartments in her neighborhood currently rent for $4,000 to $5,000 per month.
Our client’s situation started when the longtime owners of her building died. Their son and heir sold the building to a new owner who is a professional landlord of numerous residential and commercial properties, which he owns through a limited liability company. The new landlord tried getting our client to leave by repeatedly offering her money to vacate. The offers were far less than the difference between what she was paying and what it would cost her long-term to rent even a much smaller apartment in the expensive Los Angeles rental market. Our client declined the cash offers to vacate, and since she had always paid her rent in full and on time, she was protected from eviction by the City’s rent control law.
The landlord used the Ellis Act to evict her. The Ellis Act is a statewide statute that allows a landlord to evict all tenants, even those protected by rent control. The issue in the Phase 1 trial was whether the contents of the landlord’s Ellis Act eviction notice complied with the myriad state statutes, City of Los Angeles Municipal Code ordinances, and Housing Department regulations that together comprise how the Ellis Act is administered in the City of Los Angles. Our position was that the landlord’s eviction notice did not comply with the Ellis Act—and that the Housing Department’s approval of the landlord’s Ellis Act paperwork was subject to judicial review. The Court’s decision means that our client can remain in her apartment home of over 30 years. The Phase 1 Trial was conducted before the Court sitting without a jury. The Phase 2 jury trial that is estimated to last approximately 20 days has been postponed until July of 2021 due to the effects of the corona virus pandemic on the Court’s ability to hold jury cases and physical distancing requirements in the courtroom.
Issues in the Upcoming Jury Trial
In the upcoming jury trial, the issues will involve the allegations in our client’s lawsuit on file with the Court. It alleges that after our tenant client declined her landlord’s cash offers to move out (so the landlord could re-rent her unit to a new tenant for thousands of dollars more per month or sell the entire building for a large profit), the landlord embarked on a two-year campaign to make our elderly client’s life so miserable that she would vacate on her own.
Among other things, our client’s lawsuit alleges the landlord turned off the water to her unit just days after he purchased the building, disabled exterior security lights, stopped watering and maintaining the front yard such that it turned into weeds that grew several feet tall, removed the elderly tenant’s furnace heater for almost two years despite her saying she was freezing in the winters, and did not repair roof leaks that during two winters leaked so badly that rainwater filled the ceiling light in the elderly tenant’s master bedroom to the point that the water poured onto her bed. In addition, the lawsuit alleges that the landlord moved homeless people into the neighboring unit and had them sleeping on mattresses on the floor and in the carport next to where our client parked her car. The lawsuit claims the landlord committed intentional infliction of emotional distress, breached of the implied warranty of habitability, committed or allowed a private nuisance to exist on the property, committed negligence, and breached of the implied covenant of quiet enjoyment, entitling our client to general and punitive damages.
Trial Counsel and About Our Client
We are proud that we helped an elderly tenant defeat an unlawful attempt to evict her. Andrew James Thomas of our firm was lead trial counsel, and he is scheduled to try the jury phase. Our elderly client has been a lifelong working character actress. She moved to Los Angeles decades ago to pursue her acting career after graduating from Barnard College at Columbia University in New York. She came to our firm via the Barnard College Los Angeles Alumni Club of which Ms. Gordon is the President.