A team of attorneys from Susman Godfrey LLP has been defending pandemic-related housing laws across California against a legal assault from landlord groups, securing the first appellate decision in the country affirming the constitutionality of the anti-eviction ordinances amid a public health emergency.
Four Susman Godfrey lawyers partnered with pro bono services provider Public Counsel, the Western Center on Law & Poverty and the Legal Aid Society of San Diego to defend eviction moratoriums in Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland from legal challenges.
The legal work in California's federal courts from Los Angeles-based litigators Rohit Nath, Halley Josephs, Glenn Bridgman and Nick Spear helped keep 800,000 California renters in their homes, the firm estimated.
"These eviction moratoria are a very important tool during a public health crisis," Spear told Law360.
During an outbreak of COVID-19, "an eviction crisis turns into a public health crisis," Spear said. "People who lost their jobs working in retail or fast food who are also renters, you want to make sure those people have protections."
In May 2020, Nath and Josephs started representing two tenant advocacy groups — Strategic Actions For a Just Economy, and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment — as intervenors in a challenge brought by the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, or AAGLA, against the city of Los Angeles.
AAGLA sought the immediate termination of the city's rent freeze and suspension of residential evictions, which were put in place following California Gov. Gavin Newsom's March 16 executive order allowing local governments to temporarily limit evictions for nonpayment.
That bid, if successful, "would have upended housing situations for, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands in Los Angeles who weren't able to physically work and weren't getting paychecks," said Nath, who also noted that Los Angeles was already experiencing a housing crisis before the pandemic.
Nath and the rest of the legal team found the proof they needed that the government had the right to enact eviction moratoriums.
They uncovered ample precedent of emergency measures dealing with housing that had been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly during the post-World War I housing crisis and the Great Depression. Among these were Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell , in which the Supreme Court decided in 1934 that the emergency conditions of the Depression justified the state of Minnesota's extension of mortgage repayment deadlines to prevent an avalanche of foreclosures.
"There was a litany of other housing measures," Nath said, "that we thought laid a foundation for the authority that city and the county and the state relied on in enacting the COVID-19 eviction protection measures."
Those examples were convincing to the Central District of California, which denied AAGLA a preliminary injunction in November 2020. The Ninth Circuit upheld that decision after Nath argued the appeal, putting out the first federal appellate decision in the country to approve a local COVID-19-related housing measure, according to the firm.
The following February, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment retained Nath and Bridgman to represent the organization as an intervenor in a challenge to San Diego's emergency anti-eviction ordinance brought by the Southern California Rental Housing Association. They defeated the association's bid to enjoin the ordinance in the Southern District of California in July 2021, and Josephs defended the decision on appeal at the Ninth Circuit.
In 2022, the work continued as Josephs and Nath in November obtained the dismissal of billionaire developer Geoffrey Palmer's complaint against Los Angeles seeking $100 million in compensation from losses he said were caused by the eviction moratorium. Also in November, Bridgman and Spear defeated a summary judgment motion on a group of landlords' challenge to restrictions on eviction enacted by the city of Oakland and Alameda County.
The particulars of the four cases differed, but they shared two main arguments, according to Bridgman.
The argument used early on by landlord groups was that restricting landlords' ability to evict tenants was an example of the government unconstitutionally intervening in a contract between tenants and landlords. The Susman Godfrey attorneys were able to prove that the government had a public interest in regulating housing during a state of emergency that was more important than incidental losses landlords might suffer.
Once the contracts claim was settled law, landlord groups shifted their focus to a takings claim, which was an argument that removing a landlord's ability to evict amounts to expropriation of their property, Bridgman said.
To convince the judge, the Southern California Rental Housing Association presented statements from landlords saying their inability to evict was hurting them economically. The tenant advocacy organizations responded with testimonies from tenants describing their rental situation and attesting that they would have been evicted and rendered homeless without the eviction moratorium.
"It was unfortunately not difficult to find stories of people whose housing was hanging by a thread," Nath said. "To a large extent that was true before the pandemic, but after the pandemic hit, it just became that much worse."
Working on these cases allowed the attorneys to see real-life, immediate consequences of their work in a way that they usually cannot, Spear said. Members of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment held a rally outside the San Diego courthouse during the oral arguments on the case, he recalled.
"On these abstract constitutional issues, you get off in the weeds, and you're thinking about the law, it's pretty sequestered," Spear said. "To be able to go outside and see someone's directly affected is rewarding. People are scared and want to see someone has their back."
The four cases are ongoing, with the landlord groups continuing their bid to prove the housing laws are unconstitutional and claim damages for their effects.
Despite the emergency housing laws' having ended, the attorneys said it was important to continue defending them on constitutional grounds to ensure governments' ability to intervene in public health and housing emergencies continues to exist.
"The value we were able to add is to preserve the government's ability to respond quickly in a public health crisis," Spear said. "It's not just COVID; it's also about the next time."
--Editing by Nicole Bleier.
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