Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Appellate Court Criticizes Trial Judge for Unfair Treatment of Tenants in Eviction Case

The California Court of Appeal recently published a decision in favor of tenants in an eviction case, Espinoza v. Calva. The Court ruled that because the premises was "untenantable" under state law, the trial judge was incorrect in entering judgment for the landlord in the eviction case. California law clearly called for this result and the Court of Appeal was correct in its ruling.

Ordinarily, the fact that a tenant prevailed in the Court of Appeal would be the big news, but in this case the Court went a step further -- rebuking the trial judge for dismissive and unfair treatment of tenants in the underlying eviction case. This aspect of the ruling should be raised forcefully by tenant advocates defending evictions.

At trial in the Espinoza case, the judge had forced the tenants to present their defense to the eviction in 20 minutes "because the court had a jury trial the next day." The court had the tenants present an "offer of proof" rather than witnesses or evidence. The court also refused to render a statement of decision, required by statute, because the judge claimed the court did not have a secretary, even though statements of decision can be delivered orally.

Unfortunately, the trial judge's attitude was typical of what tenants experience in unlawful detainer cases across California. Many trial judges view eviction cases as a nuisance and make every effort to make sure cases either never go to trial or, if they do, that trial is as short as possible, even if that means curtailing the tenants' legal rights. Too many judges seem to view these cases as insignificant because they do not involve a lot of money.

That's why the Court of Appeal decision is so important. In overturning the trial judge's ruling, the court noted: "Although the amount in dispute in this action may have been relatively small, the issues were of great importance to the litigants. It is therefore distressing to note the summary nature of the proceedings. The trial judge did not have time to hear the tenants' evidence. He felt that his lack of a secretary excused his duty to issue a statement of decision. There is an appearance of unfairness which pervades the record."

The Court of Appeal is correct to remind trial judges that adherence to the law is not reserved for cases involving large sums of money, and that the right to stay in one's home is of great importance to tenants fighting eviction. Let's hope some of California's trial judges pay attention to this appellate decision.

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