The Court of Appeal has decided to publish its decision in Clark v. Mazgani. Tenants Together, along with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and the Housing Rights Center, had successfully requested that the Court publish the opinion.
In the underlying case, a landlord evicted a long-term tenant from a rent-controlled apartment, claiming that the basis for the eviction was for the landlord's daughter to live in the apartment. The daughter did not move in, so the tenant sued the landlord for wrongful eviction and fraud. In response to the lawsuit, the landlord filed a so-called "anti-SLAPP" motion to strike the lawsuit. According to the landlord, the tenant's case arose from protected landlord conduct -- in other words, that the landlord was being sued for exercising a constitutional right. If it sounds absurd, that's because it is. However, based on a California Supreme Court case and two other Court of Appeal decisions, the trial court agreed with the landlord and threw out the case. On appeal, the appellate court disagreed, holding that the landlord was not protected by the anti-SLAPP statute. The Court of Appeal reinstated the tenant's case.
The Clark case is important in that it found that a landlord who engaged in an illegal eviction was not entitled to hide behind California's anti-SLAPP statute (a law designed to get rid of "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation").
The case distinguished two other Court of Appeal decisions that had unfairly extended the anti-SLAPP statute and related "litigation privilege" to protect illegal conduct by landlords. Judges in those cases sought to create a special immunity for landlords, distorting the "litigation privilege" and anti-SLAPP laws beyond recognition.
With a split among the Courts of Appeal on the issue, California needs clarifying legislation to make sure that abusive landlords can be held accountable in court. In the meantime, the Clark case at least provides a reality check to landlords who think they can operate with impunity.
Special thanks to attorney Katie Richardson of the law firm of Jones Day for her representation of Tenants Together and the other nonprofit groups seeking publication of this opinion.