The Center successfully petitioned the First District Court of Appeal to publish Duncan v. Kihagi 68 Cal.App.5th 519, a decision affirming a multimillion-dollar judgment in favor of a family of residential tenants against their former landlords for wrongful eviction and harassment. In a time when rentals are scarce and COVID-related eviction protections will soon expire, this opinion makes clear that landlords may not deny services or harass their tenants in order to force them to move out — then raise the rent.
Dale Duncan and his family sued their landlords after suffering increasingly hostile behavior over 14 months from their landlords. The landlords took away benefits such as storage areas and garbage service, refused to respond to maintenance requests, allowed the building to lapse into disrepair, and became overtly hostile to tenant complaints. The landlords filed two different unlawful detainer actions against Duncan; eventually the family moved out and obtained an apartment at triple the cost. Duncan filed suit for wrongful eviction, harassment, and violation of a local San Francisco housing ordinance. At trial, the jury found for Duncan and awarded over three million dollars in damages. The landlords appealed the trial court judgment, asserting a panoply of theories to challenge the jury’s multimillion dollar verdict. But the Court of Appeal affirmed.
The finding on behalf of the tenants in this case is a rare example of an appellate opinion holding a landlord accountable for egregious behavior, and provides a potentially significant deterrent to landlords who may be tempted to harass tenants they would like to see move out. In a time when rents are continuing to soar and the pandemic has destabilized individual finances, some landlords are using harassment to force tenants out. The opinion in Duncan makes clear that tenants retain basic rights against unlawful behavior by their landlords.
Right now, tenants are particularly vulnerable to abuse and harassment while the courts await an avalanche of evictions when the current California moratorium expires at the end of September. The published section of the 55-page opinion explains that evidence of the landlords’ management of their other properties was relevant and admissible because it helped establish that the landlord had recovered possession of the unit in bad faith. The landlords’ treatment of other tenants helped establish the pattern of harassment and overall ill treatment of tenants. The Court made clear that the testimony was not improper “character evidence,” but rather was admitted to show bad faith under the rent ordinance. The Court’s evidentiary analysis marks an important benchmark for landlord/tenant law on an issue with few published opinions: the admissibility of evidence from other sites offered to demonstrate bad faith and harassment by multi-property landlords.
The Center’s letter seeking publication was joined by a group of distinguished legal services organizations: Western Center on Law and Poverty, Centro Legal de la Raza, Housing and Economic Rights Advocates, Elder Law & Advocacy, Public Law Center, National Consumer Law Center, Legal Aid of Sonoma County, and Bet Tzedek.
The opinion in Duncan offers detailed direction to courts and litigants on landlord harassment and wrongful eviction at a time when evictions are about to grow sharply. We are pleased to have been part of the effort to make the decision available to all.