Catching up on court cases: May edition

The wheels of justice are continuing to turn, albeit slower, during the COVID-19 shutdown. Let’s look at four cases the city is involved in, and catch up on the most recent actions.

Rentberry vs. the City of Seattle

After losing at the district court level last year, Rentberry appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to try to overturn the ruling. That has turned out to be a messy affair. Normally litigants aren’t allowed to introduce new evidence at the appeals court level, but there are exceptions when outside event overtake the case. In this instance two things have happened: first, the long-overdue report by the city on the impacts of rent bidding platforms was finally published, in which it was found that there was insufficient data to draw any conclusions because the moratorium had been enacted before the platforms had an opportunity to do significant business. Second, late last year the state Supreme Court found the city’s “First-in-Time” tenant protection ordinance to be legal; using a rent bidding platform to choose tenant is almost certainly in violation of that ordinance. Third, in March of this year the City Council repealed the moratorium on rent-bidding platforms, while asking city departments to continue to study the impacts and bring back recommendations for legislative action that might be necessary to address them.

Following the repeal, the city has argued that Rentberry’s case is moot. Rentberry however is arguing that it is not, in fact, moot, because there is a substantial possibility that the City Council will enact similar legislation in the future — as it suggested it might do in asking the city to continue studying the issues related to rent bidding platforms. Two weeks ago, the appeals court found at least some merit in the company’s argument, and granted its motion for supplemental briefs on the question of mootness and the related question of whether the company has “a reasonable expectation that the City of Seattle will reenact the challenged provision or one similar to it.” The court also wants to hear what the parties believe is the relevance of a recent U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with the issue of mootness for a challenged law that was subsequently repealed or modified. The parties will be filing their respective briefs in June and July.

Fair Chance Housing Ordinance

This case has also taken a meandering path to resolution. Originally filed in state court, the city successfully had it moved to federal court — then argued that the federal court should ask the state Supreme Court to resolve a question of how state law applies in the case. The Supreme Court answered that question late last year, abandoning a long list of state-specific decisions and declaring that the Court always intended to adhere to precedents in the parallel federal law — and then weighing in on how the federal law should be interpreted.

With that side issue resolved, the case is back in federal court and the two sides are filing briefs on how to interpret the state Supreme Court’s decision. The plaintiffs, who didn’t get their way with the Supreme Court, have deferred to the decision that federal case precedent applies, but have argued that the district court should ignore the state Supreme Court’s interpretation of those precedents and apply its own (a not entirely unreasonable argument, given it’s a federal court looking at an issue of federal law). The city, who was thrilled at the state Supreme Court’s decision last year, has of course argued that the district court should take all of it as gospel. This round of brief-filing winds up later this month, then the judge will decide how to move forward.

In the meantime, last week the plaintiffs asked the court to accept an amicus curiae brief from a landlord managing an affordable rental housing project in downtown Seattle who claims that since the Fair Chance Housing ordinance has prevented it from screening applicants for criminal background, it has seen an increase in 911 calls, fights in the lobby, and used needles, trash and feces in public areas of the building, and has been forced to upgrade doors, install security systems in the building, and add janitors and security guards.

ERIC vs. the City of Seattle

This is a third case that has taken a strange path. It originally began as one of two legal challenges to Initiative 124, which created a set of protections and rights for hotel workers. The main case challenged the initiative as a whole for violating the “single subject” rule; and this case, filed by ERIC, specifically challenged the portion of I-124 that required employers to provide health benefits for workers. Their argument was that such a requirement violated the federal ERISA law, which preempts state and local regulation of employee benefit packages (including healthcare). This case was in limbo while the main one played out, but then last summer Council members Mosqueda and Gonzalez led the Council to repeal I-124 and replace it with new versions — in four separate bills — that fixed various issues (legal and otherwise). Shortly after, the appeal of the main suit was dismissed as moot, leaving only the ERIC case. But since that provision of I-124 had also been rewritten, ERIC amended its original complaint to specifically address what it saw as similar legal issues with the replacement bill.

As I’ve written before, the courts’ interpretation of ERISA’s pre-emption clause is complicated because of the inherent vagueness in the law. However, courts have settled on an approach: a law violates ERISA if it is “connected to” or “makes reference to” a benefits plan. Mosqueda and Gonzalez loosely based their ordinance on one from San Francisco that the Ninth Circuit upheld against a similar challenge, but there were some differences that ERIC tried its best to accentuate in its legal arguments. However, last Friday a district court judge sided with the city, finding that the ordinance is not preempted by ERISA.

The judge specifically notes that he is bound by the Ninth Circuit decision on the San Francisco case, which he described as “nearly identical.”  It’s fairly likely that ERIC will appeal the case and let the Ninth Circuit wrestle with whether its own precedent applies or needs to be amended.

City of Seattle vs. Steven Gregory Long

This case has largely flown under the radar, but may have significant implications for how the city deals with homeless people living in their vehicles. The heart of the case is a conflict in state laws: the Homestead Act protects a person’s principle residence from forced sale, while state and local laws allow for the forced sale of an impounded vehicle. So if a vehicle is a person’s principle residence, is it subject to forced sale?

Last week a state Court of Appeals decided that a vehicle serving as a principle residence is due the full protections of the Homestead Act and is thus not subject to a forced sale. But the details are important here; the court made clear that the City may still tow and impound a vehicle, and charge the owner for associated costs. Where the city ran afoul of the law, however, was when it forced a vehicle’s owner to sign a payment plan for impoundment fees under threat of a forced sale of the vehicle.

Our decision does not affect the City’s authority to tow and impound an illegally parked vehicle. Nor does it prohibit the City from charging a vehicle owner for costs associated with the towing and impounding of a vehicle. But if that vehicle serves as the owner’s principal residence, the City may not withhold the vehicle from the owner under the threat of forced sale.

However, the court also ruled in the city’s favor on a couple of associated issues. First, it found that impounding a vehicle serving as a residence and requiring the owner to pay impoundment costs does not meet the definition of “excessive punishment” under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It also found that impounding the vehicle did not violate the owner’s 14th Amendment due process rights because it deprived him of shelter and exposed him to inclement weather.

So the practical implications of the court’s ruling is that the city can still tow and impound vehicles, but it cannot force the sale of a vehicle that someone is using as their residence in order to pay for the costs of impounding it. That’s a wrinkle in the contract between the city and towing companies (since the towing companies are the ones who ultimately sell the vehicle to pay their charges), but it’s hardly an insurmountable one. If the city can’t find other methods for recovering the impoundment costs, it may need to pay for them itself.  Now, there are many important policy questions that need to be discussed around the proper handling of illegally-parked vehicles that are being used as residences, but the court’s ruling largely leaves intact the set of tools that the city may choose to employ.


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