Catching up on some old court cases with recent twists

Since the Council’s schedule is currently reduced due to the COVID-19 response, it’s a god time to catch up on some of the city’s ongoing litigation. There are four cases that have been kicking around for a while and recently saw some activity.

The first is Hooper et al vs. City of Seattle and Washington State Department of Transportation, a 2017 lawsuit filed by the ACLU in U.S. District Court on behalf of a handful of homeless individuals. The ACLU alleged that the city’s practice of homeless encampment cleanups (aka “sweeps”) violated the individuals’ rights under both the U.S. Constitution and the Washington State Constitution. The City of Seattle filed a counter-claim, asking the the court to declare that the city’s rules for encampment cleanups are constitutional. The ACLU subsequently filed two motions: one for class-action certification so that it could argue the case on behalf of all homeless individuals in Seattle; and the other for a preliminary injunction that would stop the city from further encampment cleanups.

In October 2017, the Court denied both motions, finding that the lawsuit did not meet the established criteria for certifying a class, and that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on the merits of their case. The ACLU appealed the ruling on the class certification to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the District Court held proceedings in the case pending resolution of the appeal because the outcome would determine “the scope and strategy of Plaintiffs’ case.” The Ninth Circuit granted review in January 2018, heard oral arguments in February 2019. In November 2019, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court ruling denying class certification.

In the meantime, two other things happened. First, the ACLU lost touch with some of the named plaintiffs in the case, and it has not been able to re-establish contact with them. Second, the ACLU filed a substantially similar case in King County Superior Court, asserting the same violations of the state Constitution as well as some new claims under state law.

On March 5, the City of Seattle filed a motion in the original case, asking the judge to convert his ruling denying the preliminary injunction into a summary judgment dismissing the ACLU’s charges and affirming the city’s counter-claim that its cleanups are constitutional. On March 12, the ACLU filed a motion with the court asking the judge to dismiss the case without prejudice (meaning that the plaintiffs could file it again in the future and the case, and effectively erasing much of the case record).

The city argues that the ACLU is reading the writing on the wall in that both the district court and the Ninth Circuit have so far ruled against it on all accounts, and it wants to start again in the state court system with a clean slate. There are rules, however, against forum-shopping and filing duplicative lawsuits and the city argues that the ACLU, three years into this case and after months of expansive discovery and a mountain of legal expense, shouldn’t get to just walk away from the case. The ACLU, for its part, says that the way the city removes encampments has changed dramatically over the last three years, so it wouldn’t be a rerun of the same case; it also argues that the law severely restricts the ability to convert a preliminary injunction ruling into a final judgment, and this case doesn’t meet those requirements.

The parties have not requested a hearing, so the judge may choose to rule at any time (or schedule a hearing on his own if he so desires).

The second case, Yim vs. City of Seattle, is a continuation of the litigation in federal court  since 2018 over the city’s Fair Chance Housing ordinance that prevents landlords from considering a prospective tenant’s prior convictions in deciding whether to rent a unit to them.  Both sides filed motions for summary judgment, since the facts of the case are not in dispute — it’s simply a question of the law. In adjudicating those dueling motions, the district court judge certified a question to the Washington State Supreme Court to clarify the legal standard in Washington for due process claims related to property. The question at hand was whether the controlling law was federal law or a long set of state court precedents that over the years have diverged from the federal case law. The plaintiffs argued that is is the state law, under which the Fair Chance Housing ordinance is almost certainly illegal; the city argued that the standard is federal law, which would look more favorably on the ordinance. Late last year, the state Supreme Court declared that the standard was federal law, and in so doing wiped out dozens of its own precedents. But it also went on to give its interpretation of the federal law.

Now the case is back in federal district court and the judge can finish up his work in ruling on the dueling motions for summary judgment. The plaintiffs earlier this month filed a new brief, arguing that the Washington State Supreme Court has no business interpreting federal law on behalf of a federal court; and that the court should ignore that part of the Supreme Court’s ruling and do its own interpretation of the relevant federal law (of course, more favorable to them). It also points out flaws it sees in the Supreme Court’s interpretation.

The city will have its chance to respond, then it will be up to the judge to rule — and then back up to the Ninth Circuit for the inevitable appeal.

The third case is an old favorite from 2017: Uber and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce vs. the City of Seattle over the city’s ordinance authorizing Uber and Lyft drivers to organize for collective bargaining. The Chamber of Commerce and the City of Seattle have been fighting over the discovery process. In particular, the city asked the Chamber, who filed the case on behalf of its affected member organizations (Uber, Lyft and Eastside for Hire) through “associational standing,” to produce relevant documents on behalf of those three companies. The Chamber responded by arguing that it is only required to produce documents in its own possession, and thus would not produce anything from the companies. The City pointed out that this makes “associational standing” an excellent dodge for the discovery process, and in fact is illegal because associational standing is granted only when the association can represent its members and fully try the case without any direct participation from the members themselves — so either the Chamber must produce its members’ documents, or it can’t sue on behalf of them.

The judge agreed with the city, and in a ruling on March 10 gave the Chamber of Commerce 14 days to tell the court whether it can produce the documents from the members it is representing; and if the answer is no, the judge will remove the Chamber from the case. Last week the Chamber, with the City of Seattle’s consent, asked the court to give it an additional two weeks to reply, in part because the COVID-19 emergency is slowing things down.

The judge hasn’t yet granted the additional time, but likely will tomorrow (his original deadline for the Chamber to respond). UPDATE: the judge granted the extension.


The fourth case is a revised version of a 2018 legal challenge to Initiative 124, the hotel workers’ rights bill. You may recall that there were two challenges to I-124: one sought to throw the entire thing out for violating the “single subject” rule, and the second specifically objected to the provisions requiring employers to provide healthcare to their employees.  The first lawsuit succeeded, and I-124 was tossed in its entirety, largely making the second one moot. But before the state Supreme Court could make a final ruling on the first case, the City Council repealed it and replaced it with a set of four bills that avoided the “single subject” issues and fixed other issues with I-124. Subsequently, the second lawsuit was amended to apply to the new bill written by the Council that requires employers to pay for healthcare.

The plaintiffs argue that the healthcare requirement violates the federal ERISA Act, the main federal regulation on employee benefits that also preempts states and local governments from passing any laws related to employee benefit packages — it reserves that entire space for the federal government to regulate to ensure that the rules are consistent across the country. At the time the Council was writing its new version, it claimed that it was basing it on a San Francisco law that had survived a legal challenge based on that same principle: that it was preempted by ERISA. And in February the city of Seattle filed a motion to dismiss this case, citing that case heavily. But today the plaintiffs filed their reply, pointing out numerous differences between the San Francisco law and Seattle’s and listing all the ways that Seattle’s law relates to healthcare benefits programs– the thing it is not allowed to do. In this respect ERISA has been described as “frustratingly simple” in that it is terse and remarkably broad: it simply says that state and local governments may not pass laws that “relate to” employee benefit programs. Courts have since interpreted that to mean any law that “has a connection to” or “makes reference to” an employee benefit program that would be covered by ERISA. The plaintiffs asserted several such connections and references in the Council’s new law. The city also made a fairly weak argument that there was a presumption against preemption of state and local governments, but the plaintiffs counter that such a presumption only exists where there isn’t an explicit preemption — such as the one in ERISA.

The parties have requested an oral argument, but a date has yet to be set — and given that the courts are closed due to the COVID-19 emergency, it’s unclear when one might be scheduled.

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