The Case of the Winning Defendant

Court opinions can be like reality television shows. They both have lots of drama.

Unlike reality television, though, court opinions include lots of fun legal stuff.

What’s a court opinion?

Some cases are heard on appeal. When the Court considers an appeal, they will sometimes publish a lengthy opinion, which both summarizes the case’s background and states the logic of their decision.  As a part of the court opinion, the Court will consider the opinions of other courts.

Yes, court opinions are important

Why should you as a tenant care about this? Court decisions can affect you. While city and state governments create laws and regulations, courts interpret them when presented with the details of a specific case.

Like others, court decisions affect how I argue my cases for tenants in court.

Of course, there is a lot more to it than this simple summary. And just because a court decision is favorable to one tenant doesn’t mean that a court will decide the same way for your case. The details of every case make a difference.

An interesting case

I occasionally write about court decisions, as I did in my blog “A Landlord Gets Caught.” This case, North 7th Street Associates v. Guillermo Costante, is also interesting.  In this case there’s a good battle with a lesson at the end.

North 7th Street Associates v. Guillermo Constante is a recent opinion out of the Appellate Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court.

Granted, you might think that a court decision in Los Angeles might not be relevant to what happens in the Bay Area, but when courts need to support their opinion in a local case and can’t find anything in their district, they cast a wider net. That’s why I keep track of court opinions around California that might be relevant when arguing my cases.

What started it all

Back in 2014, Mr. Constante lived in his home in Los Angeles and had an oral month-to-month agreement.  He agreed to pay $166.95 on the first of each month (which makes you wonder about the conditions of his rental unit).  His landlord, North 7th Street Associates, served him with a 3-day notice to pay $739.35 in back rent or quit. Three days passed.

The landlord then filed a lawsuit asking for possession of the premises, the back rent, attorney fees. The works.

The tenant fights back

Mr. Constante filed an answer denying the allegations. Then he must have found more aggressive legal help. The next day, he filed an amended answer with affirmative defenses. In other words, his answer said, “Yes, that’s true what the landlord says, but here’s the reasons why their legal claim doesn’t hold water.”

Mr. Constante noted the 3-day notice to pay or quit overstated the rent, and the eviction notice failed to comply with several provisions of the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance.

The tenant gets bolder

Mr. Constante then filed for a motion of summary judgement, which asked the court to throw the lawsuit out. He lost on this first motion, but he filed a second motion of summary judgement.

This time, he basically argued among other things, that his home lacked permits and a certificate of occupancy. (Remember the low amount of his rent.)  A certificate of occupancy is a document issued by the building department certifying a building’s compliance with applicable codes and it indicates it is in a condition suitable for occupancy.

Good, bad, and then good

The lower court agreed with Mr. Constante’s motion for summary judgement. Then the landlord appealed the decision. The landlord stated they agreed no back rent was due, but they wanted possession of the unit. The Appellate Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court agreed to consider the case.

The Court decides

Regarding the validity of the 3-day notice, the Court cited previous case law that stated notices that seek rent in excess of the amount due are invalid and cannot be the basis of an unlawful detainer action.

But, the Court noted, because Mr. Constante’s home was unlawful because of the lack of permits and the certificate of occupancy, the landlord could not collect rent. The three-day notice asking for $739.35 was an overstatement. The rent due was actually zero.

Since the 3-day notice, the basis of the unlawful detainer lawsuit, was wrong, the lawsuit itself was invalid.

But…

There’s another case which was used by the landlord on their appeal. Of course, they cited this one, because the Court in this case awarded the possession of the illegal unit back to the landlord.

Remember how I mentioned that the specifics of each case can make the court decide for you or against you?

This was true here. The details of Mr. Constante’s case made the difference.

The lesson of the case

Keep fighting.

If Mr. Constante had just moved out, or not had great legal help in filing the motions for summary judgment, the Court would have decided against him.

Are you in a dispute with your landlord? Every case is different. You might consider talking to an experienced tenant attorney who can help you with your issue.

Know your rights. Protect yourself.

 

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Mary Catherine Wiederhold

Tenant Attorney
1458 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94109

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