Presented by Mike Yoshiba, Law Chair
Elmassian v. Flores; Los Angeles Superior Court
published Sept. 10,2021 [2021 S.O.S. 5200]
As in many unlawful detainer eviction matters, the landlord in this case based the eviction on the tenant maintaining, permitting, or committing a nuisance, stating, “Lessees have engaged in repeated hostile threats towards the other tenants in the building including, but not limited to, blocking the parking access and spaces of the other tenants in the building, and damaging the vehicles of the other tenants in the building. Lessees constantly have a large number of invitees that loiter on the property who are actively using and selling narcotics on the premises. Lessees and their guests routinely harass and intimidate the other tenants in the building by threatening gang violence type retaliation if the other tenants make any complaints about them.”
The tenant raised the familiar defense that the eviction was brought in retaliation to tenant’s complaints about her unit’s state of disrepair (see Civ. Code, § 1942.5), but she also raised the less common defense that the proposed eviction was improperly based upon facts relating to acts of domestic violence.
Importantly and unfortunately as we will discover, before the trial began the court granted landlord’s motion to prevent the tenant from raising the eviction defense based upon alleged acts of domestic violence committed in the apartment complex where the tenant lived. The jury was not allowed to consider whether the tenant should prevail on her defense based upon domestic violence grounds. After considering evidence concerning only the nuisance claim, the jury determined that the landlord proved that the tenant committed a nuisance and that she was in breach of her lease. A judgment was entered for the landlord and for the eviction of the tenant. Tenant appealed the trial court ruling to exclude her legal defense based upon alleged acts of domestic violence.
The law is clear that landlords cannot base an eviction on and a landlord shall not terminate a tenancy . . . based upon an act or acts against a tenant . . . that constitute domestic violence” (Code of Civ. Proc., § 1161.3, subd. The language of the statute and its legislative history indicate that, although a tenant can be evicted for non-domestic violence grounds even when the tenant is a victim of domestic violence, including due to creating a nuisance for reasons other than domestic violence and/or failing to pay rent, in instances where the action is based on both domestic violence and non-domestic violence grounds, a tenant must be allowed to maintain the section 1161.3 defense as to the domestic violence grounds.
In this case, the appellate court found that the tenant met her burden of proof presenting documentation sufficient to support the domestic violence defense and that the court improperly excluded evidence of the defense following a “directed verdict”. However, evidence presented in support of the defense to a directed verdict must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the directed verdict and without considering the credibility of the witnesses. The appellate court found that there was sufficient evidence supporting a reasonable inference of the validity of the domestic violence defense, reversed the trial court’s ruling, and sent the case back to the trial court for further action.
The case facts here detail the contentious nature of many unlawful detainer matters. The unlawful detainer process is rigid and formal creating hidden obstacles for landlord’s counsel seeking an eviction and judgment. In this case, although the trial court ruled in favor of the landlord on a legal issue, the appellate decision forces the landlord to restart of the costly and time consuming eviction process, after paying the costs of the tenant’s appeal including their own costs. Public agencies as well as private property owners traverse through this very structured but often complex unlawful detainer legal process.
Final note: The appellate court explained as follows: the “domestic violence defense” to an eviction statute states, “. . . . a landlord shall not terminate a tenancy or fail to renew a tenancy based upon an act or acts against a tenant . . . that constitute domestic violence . . . .” (§ 1161.3, subd. (a).) The statute clearly states that the landlord is only restricted from terminating a tenancy if the termination is ‘based upon an act or acts against a tenant that constitute domestic violence . . . .” In other words, if a tenant fails to pay rent or violates some other condition of the lease, the protection provided by this bill will not apply even if the tenant has documentation showing that he or she is a victim of domestic violence. It is only when the landlord terminates the tenancy because of problems created by the acts of the abuser—such as loud noises that disturb other tenants, violence that may threaten other tenants, or frequent police calls to quell disturbances—that the victim may invoke the provisions of this bill.” The intent was to preclude using the defense when the eviction was based on reasons other than domestic violence, and to allow a tenant-victim to defend against grounds for actions which relied on domestic violence acts to prove an unlawful detainer.