Earlier Judgment Exceeding $400,000 Left Substantially Intact; Court Holds Landlord Violated Rent Ordinances and Engaged in Malicious Prosecution
LOS ANGELES– LAWFUEL – The Legal Newswire –Bet Tzedek Legal Services—The House of Justice, a respected poverty-law firm, and pro bono counsel O’Melveny & Myers LLP today announced that the California Court of Appeals substantially affirmed an earlier trial-court judgment in favor of its clients, the respondents/plaintiffs in a tenant-landlord lawsuit, and upheld an award exceeding $400,000 in statutory, compensatory and punitive damages.
In an opinion rendered in Geter, et al. v. Graham, the appellate court concurred that landlord Michael O. Graham, the owner of a 10-unit Los Angeles apartment building, violated sections of the city’s rent-stabilization ordinance, as well as engaged in malicious prosecution. (Because the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision regarding the malicious prosecution cause of action, it found that it need not address the remaining torts for which the trial court found Graham liable.) The matter traces back originally to multiple unlawful-detainer actions filed by Graham against tenants following his purchase of the building, and his attempts to extract higher rents despite municipal restrictions. Those actions were initially defended by Bet Tzedek and O’Melveny, who together ultimately brought the affirmative lawsuit on behalf of the tenants that became the basis for Graham’s largely unsuccessful appeal.
Graham’s argument at trial and on appeal relied significantly on the litigation privilege afforded under California law. While the appeal was pending, the California Supreme Court handed down a decision—Action Apartment Association v. City of Santa Monica—which addressed the litigation privilege within context of an ordinance intended to curtail abusive litigation tactics by landlords operating in the City of Santa Monica. The Action Apartment decision was widely viewed as favorable to landlords and, due to the similarities in issues, had the potential to substantially reduce the award in the Geter case. Despite this threat, the Court of Appeal agreed with the respondents that the Action Apartment decision only had minor implications for the Geter award and, accordingly, left it almost entirely intact.
O’Melveny attorney Adam Karr, who argued the original case and led the appeal, called the result “enormously gratifying” and was quick to share credit with his colleagues, including Demian West and Ryan Rutledge, who handled brief writing; and Michael McGuinness and David Lash, who oversaw the case from its inception. “This was a wonderful opportunity to confront inequities on behalf of low-income tenants who would otherwise not have the resources to fight for themselves,” said Karr.
Lash, director of O’Melveny’s pro bono initiatives, said: “This case speaks volumes to the power of collaboration between private and public-interest law firms in providing access to legal services for the working poor, elderly and disabled. O’Melveny enjoys a deep, longstanding relationship with Bet Tzedek and is proud to support the organization’s mission. Adam Karr and his team are to be congratulated for the tenacity and legal scholarship they brought to this matter; they are part of a distinguished heritage of O’Melveny lawyers and staff who commit themselves similarly and, I should add, selflessly.”
Mitchell A. Kamin, Bet Tzedek’s president and chief executive officer, stated: “I offer heartfelt thanks and appreciation to O’Melveny & Myers—on behalf of our staff, board and, most importantly, clients in extreme need—for the dedication their firm brought to this case and so many others here, as well.”
“The Geter case exemplifies how, with O’Melveny’s assistance, Bet Tzedek is able to extend its services protecting seniors, families and individuals from homelessness. It also sends a resounding message that landlords who seek to unlawfully evict tenants by bringing baseless and unreasonable actions will be held accountable,” said Elissa Barrett, Bet Tzedek’s pro bono director.
About O’Melveny & Myers
With more than 1,000 lawyers in 13 offices worldwide, O’Melveny & Myers LLP helps industry leaders across a broad array of sectors manage the complex challenges of succeeding in the global economy. A values-driven law firm, O’Melveny is guided by the principles of excellence, leadership, and citizenship. Its commitment to these values is reflected in the firm’s dedication to improving access to justice through pro bono work and championing initiatives that increase the diversity of the legal profession. For more information, visit www.omm.com.
About Bet Tzedek
Founded in 1974, the mission of Bet Tzedek, which means “The House of Justice” in Hebrew, is to ensure “equal justice for all.” Annually, its staff and volunteers assist more than 10,000 clients of all racial and religious backgrounds with critical legal needs, principally in the areas of consumer law, housing issues, workplace matters, elder care and Holocaust reparations. For more information, visit www.bettzedek.org