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State Supreme Court Hands Down Mixed Ruling in Landlord Suit

By Lookout Staff

August 6 -- Landlords who file baseless evictions against tenants are immune from liability unless they don’t intend to pursue litigation, the California Supreme Court ruled last week.

However, the long-awaited ruling in the 2002 case filed by a local landlord organization against the City of Santa Monica does restore a tenant’s right to sue over a bad faith eviction notice, the court ruled Thursday.

Filed by the Action Apartment Association, the lawsuit challenged a 1995 ordinance that tightened tenant protections shortly after the State passed legislation allowing landlords to charge market rates for vacated rent-controlled units.

The 5 to 2 ruling held that under the State’s “litigation privilege” landlords are immune from liability when they actually file eviction lawsuits against tenants, even if there is no basis for the eviction.

The Santa Monica ordinance, Justice Carlos Moreno wrote in the ruling, “would cut against the litigation privilege’s ‘core policy’ of protecting access to the courts.”

By allowing the City or a private party to sue, even if the landlord was successful in the underlying action, the law would “have a chilling effect on landlords pursuing evictions through the courts,” Moreno wrote.

But the court -- which heard oral arguments on June 6 -- also unanimously agreed that the City could sanction bad faith pre-litigation tactics, including serving an eviction notice for an improper purpose and with no intent to actually sue.

The City can enforce the section of the ordinance that makes it illegal to serve “any notice to quit or other eviction notice. . . based upon facts which the landlord has no reasonable cause to believe to be true or upon a legal theory which is untenable under the facts known to the landlord,” Moreno wrote.

The litigation privilege protects communications before a lawsuit is filed only when litigation “is contemplated in good faith and under serious consideration,” Moreno wrote.

Passed by the City council 12 years ago, the local law bars landlords from maliciously interrupting services, failing to perform timely repairs, abusing the right to enter a tenant’s unit and threatening or verbally abusing tenants.

The law also bars landlords from taking action to terminate a tenancy “based upon facts which the landlord has no reasonable cause to believe to be true or upon a legal theory which is untenable under the facts known to the landlord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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