640 Octavia, LLC v. Pieper – Court of Appeal delivers guidance on summary judgment in Ellis Act unlawful detainers

640 Octavia, LLC v. Pieper delivers a long overdue analysis of an owner’s “bona fide intent to withdraw” in the context of Ellis Act evictions. The Ellis Act was enacted in 1985 in response to the Supreme Court decision Nash v. City of Santa Monica (1984) 37 Cal.3d 97, which found that a city’s police power permitted it to eliminate the ability of landlords to terminate a tenancy in conjunction with exiting the rental market, unless the city permitted it. In that case, Santa Monica would only issue a demolition permit if “(1) the building is not occupied by persons of low or moderate income, (2) cannot be afforded by persons of low or moderate income, (3) removal will not adversely affect the housing supply and (4) the owner cannot make a reasonable return on his investment.”

The California legislature was quick to respond by enacting the Ellis Act to alleviate the plight of landlords and guarantee a “fundamental right” to cease doing business as a landlord. However, it took nearly two decades before the Supreme Court dictated the rubric for use of the Ellis Act in the context of a tenant’s defense of retaliation. In Drouet v. Superior Court (2003) 31 Cal. 4th 583, the Supreme Court determined that a landlord was permitted to retaliate, so long as they had a bona fide intent to exit the rental market. (As a practical example, “mom and pop” landlords should be permitted to exit the rental market even though their tenants complain about housing defects. (In fact, they can exit because of those complaints.)

Drouet set the framework for entry of judgment for the landlord as a matter of law, but remanded to the trial court to determine whether the particular case met the standard. It took another two decades to put that standard into practice.

In 640 Octavia, the Court rejected the evidentiary significance of two themes of arguments by the tenants. First, the Court clarified the primacy of a plaintiff’s establishing a bona fide intent to withdraw in the face of a retaliation defense under Drouet. Essentially, there is no “retaliatory withdrawal defense” when a landlord seeks to go out of business.
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Hiona v. Superior Court (2154 Taylor LLC): Waiver of Incidental Damages in Unlawful Detainer Judgment Does Not Require Reclassification to Limited Jurisdiction

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In Hiona v. Superior Court, the owner of an apartment building withdrew the property from the rental market under the Ellis Act. Several tenants held over after the date of withdrawal, raising several dozen defenses each. Ultimately, the defenses lacked evidentiary support. The owner moved for (and was granted) summary judgment against each of the three groups of defendants.

A summary judgment motion is defeated if the opposing party can show that there is a “triable issue” as to any material fact. An action for unlawful detainer seeks possession of the property and per diem holdover damages, and so the easiest way for a defendant to defeat a property owner’s motion is to dispute the value of the damages. However, damages in an unlawful detainer case are merely incidental to the claim for possession. Owner 2154 Taylor LLC therefore conditionally waived damages for the purpose of seeking summary judgment.

The trial court awarded judgment to the owner. Then, because the owner had waived damages, the defendants each moved to reclassify a case from unlimited to limited jurisdiction. The distinction is partly vestigial and partly substantive. California formerly had municipal courts and superior courts, with distinct jurisdiction. In 1998, California voters amended the constitution to allow them to unify. Today, the trial court sitting in limited jurisdiction cannot award judgment above $25,000. Appeals from limited jurisdiction go to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court instead of to the Court of Appeal. There are also rules of “economic litigation” for limited cases, but these expressly do not apply to unlawful detainers.

The penalty for a plaintiff who “overpleads” their case (i.e., where the plaintiff alleges damages above $25,000 but recovers less) is that they may not be entitled to their costs, even as a prevailing party. Obviously, the cap on damages in limited jurisdiction is appealing to a defendant. But since unlawful detainer cases aren’t subject to economic litigation rules anyway, and since this owner waived damages, there would seem to be little sense in reclassifying these cases: the defendants would lose their argument that the case had been overpled.

However, there were other benefits for these defendants if the case were reclassified. It would be banal to note that Ellis Act evictions in San Francisco are political theater fixated on transfer of wealth. (A rent-controlled tenancy is, in effect, a highly valuable and non-transferrable property interest, which ends when the tenancy does.) San Francisco funds tenant eviction defense with the goal of elongating a tenant’s occupancy of their (former) rental unit. By reclassifying the case, defendants can potentially delay an adverse outcome by creating one more “rung” of appellate review. (Though not allowed by right, the Court of Appeal can grant a motion for transfer from the Appellate Division or review its ruling.)

The Appellate Division is also bound by its own decisions in a way that the Court of Appeal is not, and this is of particular importance for a San Francisco Ellis Act eviction defendant, following the excessively tenant-friendly opinion Hilaly v. Allen (2017). The reclassification motion was tantamount to forum-shopping.

The trial court denied the defendants’ motion. A judgment above $25,000 was still possible. (The defendants were preparing their appeal of the judgment, and a reversal would vacate the order where the plaintiffs waived damages.) Defendants sought a writ of mandate, reversing the trial court’s order, but the Court of Appeal affirmed.

It noted that “A party seeking to reclassify a case from unlimited to limited faces a ‘high threshold’. (Ytuarte v. Superior Court (2005) 129 Cal.App.4th 266, 278.) The trial court must conclude ‘that the verdict will ‘necessarily’ fall short of the superior court jurisdictional requirement of a claim exceeding $25,000.’ (Walker v. Superior Court (1991) 53 Cal.3d 257, 270.) ‘The unlikeliness of a judgment in excess of $25,000 is not the test. The trial court reviews the record to determine whether the result is obtainable. Simply stated, the trial court looks to the possibility of a jurisdictionally appropriate verdict, not to its probability.’ (Maldonado v. Superior Court (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th 397, 402.).”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motions on purely statutory grounds. The reclassification statute expressly states that “Nothing in this section shall be construed to require the superior court to reclassify an action or proceeding because the judgment to be rendered, as determined at the trial or hearing, is one that might have been rendered in a limited civil case”. While the statute authorizes a defendant to reclassify the case at any time, the Court interpreted the language “the judgment to be rendered” as essentially foreclosing the option once the trial court granted the summary judgment motion.



AB 1399 (2019): Heightened Regulations for Returning to the Rental Market Following Ellis Act Withdrawal

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AB 1399 is the product of Assemblymember Bloom’s efforts to prevent the perceived exploitation of the Ellis Act’s re-rental provisions by infamous landlord Anne Kihagi. (A 2017 Appellate decision found that she was not prohibited from re-renting in compliance with the Ellis Act by a stipulated settlement with the City of West Hollywood, and it condoned her re-rentals, to the extent they conformed to the law.)

AB 1399 amends the Ellis Act in three ways. First, a landlord was previously required to give a displaced-tenant the first right of refusal on re-renting a unit returned to the market within ten years of withdrawal. The existing penalty was punitive damages equal to six months of the contract rent. AB 1399 amends this to say that paying the penalty does not extinguish the owner’s obligation to honor the tenant’s rights.

Second, it aligns the dates of withdrawal for all units. The Ellis Act requires a 120-day notice period before the units are withdrawn. Qualified tenants are entitled to an extension. For other tenants, the landlord was permitted to grant an extension (to maintain rental income for each unit until all were withdrawn). This could result in two different categories of withdrawal dates, if the owner did not elect to extend non-qualified tenancies. Under AB 1399, the “date of withdrawal” (for purposes of tracking the post-withdrawal constraints) is the latest date of withdrawal of any unit.

Finally, it allows cities to require that a landlord returning any unit to the rental market during the period of constraints to return each unit, unless it was the principal place of residence to an owner or family member before withdrawal or it is the principal place of residence of an owner when the accommodations are returned to the market.

Even when these changes become effective on January 1, 2020, they will not immediately affect owners who have withdrawn from the residential rental market. Authorized provisions of the Ellis Act may be implemented by local governments but are not required. It is also currently unclear whether this will apply to re-rentals for properties withdrawn prior to AB 1399.


Hilaly v. Allen: Tenant Successfully Defends Ellis Act Eviction with “Change to Terms of Tenancy” Defense, Following Landlord’s Reliance on Estoppel Statement

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“Allen had no contractual duty to complete the questionnaire. The parties indicated no shared understanding, discussions or advisement of the questionnaire’s binding nature. The questionnaire contained no express statement that the tenant would be bound by the assertions made in the questionnaire. The questionnaire was ambiguous on relevant terms, indicating that it was not the sort of communication that would lead to binding statements regarding terms and conditions of tenancy. And the record contains no indication that all parties were highly sophisticated or enjoyed similar bargaining power.”

Naseem and Naser Hilaly were residential landlords of a multiunit property in San Francisco. They purchased the building along with their son and his wife, who wanted to live together with each of their parents in the same property. Betty Allen was a long-term tenant who, prior to the sale of the building to the Hilalys, executed an estoppel statement describing that she did not have parking.

After failing to negotiate a buyout agreement, the Hilalys proceeded to withdraw the property pursuant to the Ellis Act. Allen’s mother lived with her during this period, and a visiting nurse parked in the curb cut of the street, blocking the garage that the Hilalys were parking in. The Hilalys left a note that said, “I’ve told you not to park here again”.
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AB 1795 (2019): Assemblymember Kamlager-Dove’s Amendment to the Unlawful Detainer Statutes Would Maintain “Public Records Mask” for Tenants Who Choose To Fight Ellis Evictions

Information about lawsuits is generally available to the public. And for tenants who have been evicted, this information is often used in credit checks for rental applications. (A landlord would understandably be interested in knowing if her applicant had just been evicted for non-payment of rent.) The unlawful detainer statutes have a specific provision governing the masking of eviction lawsuits from the public record. (Formerly, a limited civil eviction lawsuit would unmask automatically, unless a defendant prevailed in 60 days. A 2016 amendment inverted the rule, maintaining the mask unless the landlord prevailed in 60 days.)

AB 1795, however, would prevent the court clerk from allowing access to information about Ellis Act evictions, regardless of whether the landlord prevails in 60 days. Ellis Act evictions often feature a fight about wealth; the tenant has a non-transferable, valuable property interest in their rent-controlled tenancy, while the landlord wants possession of her valuable asset. In San Francisco, for instance, the City actively encourages tenants to hold over and fight Ellis Act evictions. (After all, there’s no better affordable housing than the exiting unit that already has a rent-controlled tenant in it.) But it is difficult to read this amendment as anything other than tacit encouragement from Sacramento for tenants to violate the law and fight an eviction with fewer consequences. A landlord would understandably be interested in knowing that her prospective tenant is likely to violate obligations other than paying rent, as well.


AB 1399 (2019): Assemblymember Bloom’s Latest Attempt To Police Re-Rentals following Ellis withdrawal

Provoked by infamous landlord Anne Kihagi (whose aggressive reading of re-rental timing for withdrawn units was actually vindicated in the Court of Appeals), Assemblymember Bloom had introduced last year’s unsuccessful AB 2364 – seeking to require that landlords return to the market all at once or not at all. (By comparison, Kihagi was able to return units to the market that were unoccupied at the time she began the Ellis withdrawal, and was thus able to do so without price constraints.)

Gov. Newsom recently challenged the legislature at his “state of the State” address: “get me a good package on rent stability this year and I will sign it”. While many fresh ideas have already been advanced, AB 1399 appears to be another attempt at AB 2364.

As introduced, its language would allow cities to require Ellis-invoking property owners to return all units to the market at the same time. Many different configurations of properties are withdrawn under the Ellis Act, but for those where the owner (or their family) moves into a tenant-occupied unit, this change would either prevent rental of other units or force property owners to leave their own homes to rent units. One wonders how this bill would aid in easing the housing crisis, where it makes the process of putting existing units back on the market more onerous. (The language will likely need to be changed before the statute can advance.)


Ballinger v. City of Oakland: Pacific Legal Foundation Sues City of “Relocation Assistance Payments”

The Ballingers, a military couple, leased their single family home in Oakland when they were reassigned to Washington D.C. for service. Anticipating they would return to the Bay Area within a few years, they negotiated a term lease that would become a month-to-month tenancy around that time. However, after they leased their home (but before they had planned to move back in), the City of Oakland instituted a “relocation assistance payment” regulation, requiring them to pay their tenants in order to terminate the tenancy and move back in.

The Pacific Legal Foundation represents the Ballingers in their lawsuit against Oakland, alleging that the ordinance constitutes a taking/exaction of private property and that it violates their rights under the Ellis Act.

However, relocation assistance payments that are reasonable have been upheld as consistent with the Ellis Act (cities are actually allowed to mitigate the adverse impacts of Ellis Act displacement, provided the payments do not impose a “prohibitive price“).

That said, the case law interpreting the mitigation payments addresses the Ellis Act only, not the 5th Amendment, so there may be something to the claim that taking money from a landlord to give to a tenant in exchange for allowing the landlord to retake possession of her property is an unconstitutional “taking”. And PLF may have to focus on the constitutional claims, rather than violations of state law, as their clients actually performed an “owner move-in” eviction rather than an Ellis Act eviction.


Los Angeles Times Reports on Tenant Choices in Return of Ellis-Withdrawn Building to Rental Market

The Los Angeles Times reports on the decisions of tenants, displaced by the Ellis Act, to return to their former units later re-offered for rent.

While the Ellis Act is colloquially described as “going out of the rental business”, it actually sets the standards for cities to implement rules on withdrawing from the market and going back into business later. For instance, a displaced tenant may be re-offered their former unit if rented within ten years of withdrawal, and within five years, they benefit from their old rent-controlled rental rate.


Legal Q & A: How Expensive Is an Ellis Act Eviction?

A. An Ellis Act eviction will cost a fair amount of money, time and your patience. Let’s start with the basics: the Ellis Act is a state law that requires cities to allow landlords to stop being landlords – specifically by withdrawing their property from the residential rental market. A landlord who withdraws their property can terminate tenancies. This requires an “eviction notice” and a handful of other documents, the validity of which are often measured with exacting standards. Landlords should hire qualified counsel to do this work. The first expense will therefore be your legal fees and tasks associated with preparing for a successful Ellis. These will vary with the size of your building, the quality of paperwork in the management file, and possibly the need to obtain insurance, adjust record title or even refinance with a suitable lender.
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SF Chronicle Reports on Court of Appeal Reversal of Ellis Act Judgment for Property Owner so Jury Can Hear Evidence of Alleged “Sham Transfer” to Co-Owner

Update: Division Five has certified Coyne v. De Leo for publication.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a recent unpublished ruling from Division Five of the First District Court of Appeal, reversing a judgment in favor of an Ellis Act-invoking landlord, on the basis that the trial court improperly excluded evidence of a “sham transfer”.

The Ellis Act requires property owners to withdraw all “accommodations” (i.e., residential rental units) from the market and to terminate all such tenancies. A landlord may not terminate some accommodations and leave others. (This is a common sense rule that allows a landlord to “go out of business” but not to evade rent control by evicting low-paying tenants and keep the market rate ones.)

In Coyne v. De Leo, the owner (Coyne) invoked the Ellis Act on a four-unit building with a single “tenant”. Other units were occupied by family members and friends – including one friend, Maria Esclamado, who was a former tenant until Coyne made her an owner so that she could participate in the Ellis withdrawal and remain in her home.

The tenant (De Leo) wanted to introduce evidence about this “transfer of ownership” to the jury. He argued that the transfer – with seller financing, a monthly payment conspicuously similar to the former “rent” payment, and an eventual “quitclaim deed” back to Coyne when she moved – was suspicious.

The Chronicle quoted Coyne’s attorney, Justin Goodman, as saying that Esclamado “received title to the property and had all the benefits of title” while “Martin (Coyne) took all the risks”, predicting that Coyne would prevail at a retrial even with the evidence that was previously barred.