Lawsuit for Illegal Eviction in California

In Clark v. Mazgani (2009) 170 Cal.App.4th 1281, a landlord owned a rental unit subject to a local ordinance that restricted the bases for an eviction. The landlord filed an unlawful detainer action against a long-term tenant, and successfully evicted her to make the unit available to her own daughter--a permissible purpose for eviction under the ordinance. (Clark, supra, at p. 1284.) The tenant sued the landlord for fraud and unlawful eviction after the daughter failed to move in. The trial court granted the landlord's special motion to strike, reasoning the tenant's complaint was essentially based on the landlord's privileged communications. (Id. at p. 1285.) The Court of Appeal reversed, finding the complaint did not arise from protected activity: "There is no question that the prosecution of an unlawful detainer action is indisputably protected activity within the meaning of section 425.16. The tenant's complaint, however, is not premised on the landlord's protected activities of initiating or prosecuting the unlawful detainer action, but on her removal of the apartment from the rental market and fraudulent eviction of the tenant for the purpose of installing a family member who never moved in. 'Terminating a tenancy or removing a property from the rental market are not activities taken in furtherance of the constitutional rights of petition or free speech.' '"The mere fact that an action was filed after protected activity took place does not mean the action arose from that activity for the purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute."' The pivotal question '"is whether the cause of action is based on the defendant's protected free speech or petitioning activity."'" (Clark, supra, 170 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1286-1287.) Further explaining why the complaint was not based on protected activity, the Clark court noted that the tenant's "action against the landlord is not based on the landlord's filing or service of the notices of intent to evict, it is not based on anything the landlord said in court or a public proceeding, and it is not based on the fact that the landlord prosecuted an unlawful detainer action against her. The complaint is based on the landlord's allegedly unlawful eviction, in that she fraudulently invoked the ordinance to evict the tenant from her rent-controlled apartment as a ruse to provide housing for her daughter, but never installed her daughter in the apartment as required by that ordinance, and also that she failed to pay the tenant's relocation fee." (Id. at p. 1288.) The Clark court relied on a series of cases likewise involving landlord-tenant disputes, each of which concluded that the gravamen of the suit did not involve protected activity. For example, in Marlin v. Aimco Venezia, LLC (2007) 154 Cal.App.4th 154, a landlord filed notices of intent to go out of business as permitted by a Government Code provision and local ordinance. The trial court granted the landlord's special motion to strike a declaratory relief complaint filed by tenants and the appellate court reversed, reasoning that while the filing and service of the notices may have triggered the tenants' complaint, the cause of the complaint was the landlord's allegedly wrongful reliance on the Government Code as authority permitting termination of the tenancies. (Marlin v. Aimco Venezia, LLC, supra, at pp. 160-161.) Moreover, evidence showing the complaint was "'intertwined'" with other litigation involving the landlord's right to evict failed to establish the complaint was based on protected activity. (Id. at p. 162.) In another case cited by the Clark court, Santa Monica Rent Control Bd. v. Pearl Street, LLC (2003) 109 Cal.App.4th 1308, the appellate court reversed an order granting a motion to strike a complaint filed by a city rent control board against property owners who allegedly created sham, short-term tenancies to avoid rent restrictions. The court explained that even though the property owners' tenancy creation involved administrative activity that could be characterized as exercise of the right of petition or free speech, they were not sued for such activity--they were sued to compel their compliance with the rent control law. (Id. at p. 1318.) The court elaborated: "Thus, while this suit may have been 'triggered by' defendants' submission of such documents to the Board, it is not true that this suit is based on the filing of such papers. Rather, the suit is based on activity that preceded the filing of the papers. This suit is based on the Board's claim that defendants are charging an illegal rent for units A and C. Not surprisingly, defendants have not presented any authority for the proposition that their conduct in charging illegal rent is an act in furtherance of their rights of petition or free speech. If we were to accept defendants' argument, then they could preclude any judicial review of their violation of the rent control law, no matter how egregious, by simply filing a SLAPP motion in response to any Board complaint. We are confident that the Legislature intended no such application of this statute." (Ibid.)