Responding to pattern of banks and real estate agents violating Oakland's Just Cause for Eviction law, Oakland City Attorney John Russo took an important step when he sued JP Morgan Chase and other banks and real estate agents for illegally evicting Oakland tenants after foreclosure. For this he has received a great deal of well-deserved media attention and praise from tenant advocates.
But Russo's recent settlement with JP Morgan Chase is a major disappointment. The settlement calls for payment of a mere $35,000 by JP Morgan Chase to the city. This settlement cannot even be considered a slap on the wrist.
In his press release, Russo “congratulate[s] JP Morgan Chase and the other defendants for quickly stepping up" to settle the lawsuit. He adds that he hopes the settlement "send[s] a strong message to other banks and agents who do business in our community."
We seriously doubt that a huge bank like JP Morgan Chase, who this week announced its second quarter profit of $2.7 billion, will alter its conduct because of a $35,000 settlement with the City of Oakland. The settlement does not even include a stipulated injunction requiring compliance with the law or penalties for future violations.
Two real estate agents who were defendants in the same case also agreed to settle. Russo’s “praised the real estate agents” for agreeing to the settlements. Percy Cheung agreed to pay the city $2,500. Joseph McNulty agreed to pay $3,000. Realtors who are profiting by violating tenants rights won’t be deterred by these underwhelming figures.
That said, at least the agreements with the real estate agents contain nonmonetary relief that could help deter future misconduct. The Cheung settlement contains a stipulated injunction. Both the Cheung and McNulty settlement require the agents to produce a broad range of specified documents to the city which may help in the prosecution of other defendants. Both real estate agents also agreed to pay the City $5000 per violation in the event of any future violations. Similar provisions should have been included in the settlement with the bank.
Fortunately, this is not the only case pending against realtors and banks that violated Oakland tenant protection laws. There are four other lawsuits pending. According to the City’s press release, "[t]he City Attorney's Office is in settlement negotiations with other defendants named in the complaints."
Russo has an opportunity to make sure that any settlements in the other cases reflect the gravity of the violations and send a real message to deter future illegal conduct by banks and real estate agents. If banks and agents won’t agree to that type of settlement, the City should take the cases to trial and conduct full discovery of the bad practices of these banks and agents.
We also hope to see a different tone in any further press releases from the City in these cases. The defendant banks and agents are accused of serious violations of Oakland's Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance. Imagine a D.A. publicly praising a criminal defendant for agreeing to a plea bargain – it wouldn’t happen. And here, defendants aren’t even admitting they did anything wrong, instead signing an agreement in which they “do not admit any violation of law.” There is simply no good reason for the City Attorney to issue a press release praising real estate agents and banks for agreeing to this type of settlement.
Tenants in Oakland and beyond are watching these important cases, as are banks and real estate agents across the state and the country. The recent settlement sends exactly the wrong message.