Today a group of Capitol Hill residents, property owners and businesses filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Seattle for its role in allowing the CHOP to get established and for ongoing support of it as CHOP participants allegedly blocked access to the area, threatened and assaulted people, and inflicted widespread property damage.
The plaintiffs in the case include:
- Northwest Wine and Liquor;
- Car Tender, which suffered a widely-reported break-in and assault;
- Sage Physical Therapy;
- the owner of Tattoos and Fortune;
- Bergman’s Lock and Key Services;
- several local residents;
- Onyx Homeowners Association;
- real estate companies owning and/or managing companies in or near the CHOP.
But beyond the named plaintiffs, the lawsuit attempts to establish a class of plaintiffs that it believes could number “in the thousands.” That class would include “All persons or entities who own property in, have a business in, or reside in the area in the City of Seattle bounded by the following streets: Denny Way, Union Street, Thirteenth Avenue, and East Broadway.” There are strict rules for certification of a class of plaintiffs: it must be possible to identify and notify all potential class members of the lawsuit; the definition of the class must be unambiguous; the number of class members must make individual lawsuits impractical, and the factual and legal issues central to the case must be common among the class members. The city will likely fight the class certification on technical grounds, but at first blush there seems to be a good argument in favor of it.
The lawsuit alleges that the city not only allowed the CHOP to be formed by abandoning the East Precinct and declaring a policy that police officers would not enter the area for anything other that life-safety issues, but actively supported it by providing barricades, hygiene services, medical equipment, and other forms of logistical support. Further, it allowed it to continue with full knowledge of the illegal activities occurring, the public safety issues, and the damage being done to property.
The lawsuit lists five causes of action:
- It alleges that the city violated the plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected property rights to access and use their property and to exclude others from it, without due process. It did so by creating city policies that authorized the existence of the CHOP without any notice to the plaintiffs or opportunity for them to be heard. That has led to multiple harms, including loss of revenue, loss of property value, and damage to property.
- It alleges that the city has directly participated in the creation and maintenance of a public nuisance, in violation of state law (RCW 7.48.010). The nuisance includes barricades and barriers that prevent access to the area; excessive noise; public safety hazards; vandalism; and poor health and sanitation conditions.
- It alleges that the city has violated the plaintiffs’ substantive due process right to be protected from state-created dangers by rendering “assistance, endorsements, and encouragements of CHOP and CHOP participants,” and in doing so “have greatly increased the likelihood of property damage, loss of business revenue and rental income, personal injury, loss of use of property, and other damages”.
- It alleges that the city made an unlawful gift of public resources to the CHOP participants by giving them control over the public right of way, Cal Anderson Park, and the East Precinct, and by actively supporting and abetting the takeover of those public spaces.
- It alleges that the city has performed an unlawful taking of private property for private use, or alternately for public use without compensation, by “affirmatively creating, assisting, endorsing, and encouraging an indefinite, unpermitted invasion, occupation, and blockade of the public rights-of-way that provide access to Plaintiffs’ private properties, as well as by affirmatively creating, assisting, endorsing, and encouraging the physical invasion of Plaintiffs’ private properties by CHOP participants.”
The complaint filed by the plaintiffs details the stories of their experiences of the CHOP: assaults, harassment, thefts, property damage, expereinces with “CHOP security” forces, customers and tenants scared away, and on and on.
The fact that the activities at the CHOP have been so extensively documented, and Mayor Durkan and Chief Best have talked about their policies and decisions at great length, strengthen the plaintiffs’ case. If the plaintiffs win, the named plaintiffs alone could win hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. If the class is certified, it could easily reach tens of millions.
The plaintiffs ask the court to award damages, but interestingly they don’t ask it to force the city to take action to end the CHOP. In fact, they begin their complaint by saying that they support the free-speech rights of the protestors and the issues they are fighting for:
The rights of free speech and to peaceably assemble are enshrined in our constitutional tradition. Plaintiffs support free-speech rights and support the efforts of those like Black Lives Matter who, by exercising such rights, are bringing issues such as systemic racism and unfair violence against African Americans by police to the forefront of the national consciousness. Specifically, Plaintiffs support the free speech rights of many of those who have gathered on Capitol Hill to form what has been called “CHAZ,” standing for the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” or “CHOP” for “Capitol Hill Organized Protest” or “Capitol Hill Occupying Protest.”
This lawsuit does not seek to undermine CHOP participants’ message or present a counter-message. Rather, this lawsuit is about the constitutional and other legal rights of Plaintiffs—businesses, employees, and residents in and around CHOP—which have been overrun by the City of Seattle’s unprecedented decision to abandon and close off an entire city neighborhood, leaving it unchecked by the police, unserved by fire and emergency health services, and inaccessible to the public at large. The City’s decision has subjected businesses, employees, and residents of that neighborhood to extensive property damage, public safety dangers, and an inability to use and access their properties.
SCC Insight has asked the City Attorney’s Office and the Mayor’s Office for comment on the lawsuit, and will update this story with any response received.
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