Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and Scali Rasmussen, PC have secured a million-dollar settlement for nine low-income rent-controlled tenants in a lawsuit against their Santa Monica landlords: Defendants Russell No. 8 Santa Monica Properties, LLC; Martin Mink; Terry Mink; Florette Mink; and Rebecca Rakes. In the suit filed in 2016, the tenants alleged the landlords maintained their apartment building in an uninhabitable and unsafe condition and then illegally tried to terminate their tenancies after a fire forced them to vacate the building and failed to pay them temporary relocation benefits required under local law.
Lead plaintiff, Isabel Cerneka, said of the settlement, “I lost my home of 28 years and all of my belongings in a fire that could have been prevented had the Mink family taken proper care of their building. Rather than pay temporary relocation, Marty Mink told my neighbors and me to sleep in sleeping bags on the manager’s floor. I am now 77 years old, and the fire took a toll on my health and the lawsuit was very stressful. However, I am grateful for the settlement, which is due to the attorneys at LAFLA and Scali Rasmussen who diligently worked pro bono for thousands of hours over three and a half years to achieve this wonderful result.”
The building, known as the Overlook Hotel, and located on Ocean Front Walk near the Santa Monica Pier, caught fire on December 12, 2015. The tenants asserted the fire was an inevitable result of the building’s substandard electrical system – one of several slum-like conditions that also included defective plumbing and fire prevention systems, insufficient heat (including some units with no heat at all), mold, and infestations of bedbugs and cockroaches.
After the fire, with the tenants displaced, Russell No. 8 continuously failed to pay them the temporary relocation benefits required under Santa Monica law. They instead filed paperwork with the Santa Monica Rent Control Board to withdraw the property from the residential rental housing market under the Ellis Act. Russell No. 8 and the Mink family then began planning to make repairs and renovations to convert the Overlook Hotel and adjacent properties (also owned by Russell) into a more lucrative commercial enterprise.
Facing homelessness after the fire, the low-income tenants were provided temporary lodging in local motels by the Red Cross and the City. Russell No. 8 eventually offered the tenants only permanent relocation, claiming the Ellis notice and fire immediately terminated the tenancies.
“Although it took years of litigation, we were able to get these tenants compensation for the hardships they endured. I hope that this case will serve as a warning to landlords who consider defying laws designed to protect vulnerable tenants,” explained Senior Attorney Denise McGranahan of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.
After Russell No. 8’s refusal to pay temporary relocation and to recognize the continued existence of their tenancies, they were successful in delaying trial for three and a half years. “If Russell No. 8 had simply complied with local law, its liability would have been limited to only tens of thousands in relocation benefits,” said attorney John Swenson of Scali Rasmussen. “However, as the result of the dilatory tactics advised or followed by its lawyers, and the years of mistreatment of the tenants, Russell No. 8 was able to end its liability only by settling for $1 million.”
The tenants were represented by Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and the law firm of Scali Rasmussen, which joined with LAFLA in representing the tenants pro bono.
“It was a pleasure to have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with LAFLA to achieve this successful outcome,” said Christian Scali, founder and managing partner of Scali Rasmussen. “Representing the tenants pro bono is one way our attorneys are able to make a difference in our community.”
Scali Rasmussen attorneys are thought leaders within their areas of practice, including a formidable knowledge of the automotive industry. The firm’s attorneys provide litigation services in a broad scope of practice areas as well as counsel and education on new and trending issues including distribution and franchise, consumer product safety, privacy & advertising and employment law.
Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.