October 2015 Bar Bulletin
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October 2015 Bar Bulletin

A Huge Win for Tenants' Rights

By Rory O'Sullivan

 

In May, in the case of Pham v. Corbett,1 Division I of the Court of Appeals issued a strongly worded opinion affirming tenants' rights to reasonable living conditions and to relocation assistance when a landlord rents an illegal property.

In the spring of 2012, Shakia Morgan and Shawn Corbett, a young couple with a baby boy, moved into a rundown property in the Rainier Beach area of Seattle. Because they didn't have much money, they didn't have many options, so they agreed to rent the apartment even though there were a number of problems.

The "pantry" next to the kitchen had a dirt floor that led to a water/sewage crawl space, and the railing and decking had dangerous gaps. In addition to these issues, they began to experience a rat infestation and noticed a sewage smell coming from their bathroom sink. Morgan and Corbett told their landlord about these issues, but despite some perfunctory attempts at repairs, the rat infestation and the sewage smell remained.

After about a year, the tenants contacted the Seattle Department of Planning and Development to register their complaints about the property. A city inspector came out to the property and sent a letter to the landlord and the tenants listing 23 separate code violations, including the fact that the property was only zoned for three units even though the landlord was renting five separate units. Shortly after the landlord received the letter from the city, he initiated a lawsuit against Morgan and Corbett alleging that they had failed to pay rent.

The tenants came to the Housing Justice Project seeking assistance with their response to the eviction lawsuit. An HJP volunteer assisted them with an answer to the complaint, alleging warranty of habitability issues resulting in a diminished rental value, as well as the landlord's duty under state law to provide them with relocation assistance since the unit was illegal. Despite the numerous, well-documented problems with the property, the landlord refused to reach a settlement and the case was set for trial.

Liz Lindsley, a recent law school graduate, represented the tenants at trial. Lindsley was assisted in her trial preparation by Steve Sanford, an airline pilot turned attorney, and Paige Hardy, a law student who was interning with HJP for the summer of 2013. After a one-day trial in which testimony was presented by the tenants, the city inspector, the landlord and an exterminator, Superior Court Judge Judy Ramseyer issued a ruling in favor of the tenants.

Judge Ramseyer ruled that Morgan and Corbett had overpaid their rent due to the seriousness of the habitability issues and awarded them relocation assistance as requested in their answer. She also awarded attorney fees on behalf of their trial counsel.

The landlord appealed the ruling on a number of grounds. The landlord argued that tenants are not permitted to raise issues such as their right to relocation assistance in the context of an eviction action. The landlord also argued that the evidence at trial did not support Judge Ramseyer's ruling regarding the landlord's violation of the warranty of habitability. Lindsley, with the assistance of Gary Manca, represented the tenants on appeal.

In a published opinion issued on May 26, the Court of Appeals upheld Judge Ramseyer's rulings in their entirety. This was the first case interpreting the state statute on a tenant's right to relocation assistance and one of only three published opinions addressing the implied warranty of habitability.

For decades to come, low-income tenants will benefit from the efforts of this resilient young couple and their team of dedicated attorneys.

Rory O'Sullivan is the senior managing attorney for the Housing Justice Project

1 187 Wn. App. 861, 351 P.3d 214 (2015).

 

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