A look at some recently decided court cases involving real estate.

Landlord must maintain a tenant’s quiet enjoyment

A tenant occupies property under a lease. The landlord also leases separate portions of the same property to other tenants. One of the neighboring tenants in the property starts to verbally abuse the tenant and splash mud on the tenant’s vehicle. The disputes eventually become physical. As these incidents occur, the tenant advises the resident manager in writing. The manager tells the tenant the disputes are a matter for law enforcement. The landlord and the manager do not take action against the troublesome neighbor. The tenant claims the landlord is obligated to preserve his quiet use and enjoyment of the property under the tenancy by taking corrective measures, e.g., evicting the neighbor. The landlord claims he does not owe the tenant a duty to take steps to control the neighbor’s conduct or to evict him for his continued interference with the tenant’s quiet enjoyment of the property. A California appeals court held the landlord has a duty under an implied covenant inherent in all lease (and rental) agreements to preserve the tenant’s quiet use and enjoyment of the property by conducting an investigation into reported incidents, and, if appropriate, to issue a notice to perform, pursue injunctive relief to enjoin the neighbor’s behavior, or, if necessary, commence an eviction proceeding. [Andrews v. Mobile Aire Estates (January 4, 2005) 125 CA4th 578]

Police-ordered, drug-related eviction is unenforceable

A residential landlord receives a letter from the city police chief ordering him to evict all tenants in a particular unit due to their drug-related activities by serving a three-day notice to quit within ten days of the order and thereafter prosecute an unlawful detainer (UD) action until successful. The landlord appeals to the city manager, who denies the landlord any relief from the order. The landlord then seeks a court order to enjoin the city from enforcing the police order since the landlord’s failure to evict allows the city to force his compliance by fines and liens on his property. The landlord claims the police order provided no documentation to assure the landlord’s successful enforcement of a three-day notice to vacate against all occupants of the unit, that a ten-day period to serve a three-day notice was not enough time for the landlord to gather evidence to support an eviction, and the ordinance the order sought to enforce required the landlord to prevail at the unlawful detainer hearing subject to civil fines and criminal prosecution by the city against the landlord. The city claims it has a police power interest in protecting its citizens which makes the ordinance and police order a reasonable regulation for the landlord to abide by. A California appeals court held the police order compelling the landlord to evict tenants and the entire drug-related ordinance unenforceable since the ordinance imposes a risk of erroneous deprivation of the landlord’s protected property rights to collect rent and avoid the financial impact of fines and liens authorized by the ordinance. [Cook v. City of Buena Park (January 28, 2005) 126 CA4th 1]

Building permit based on erroneous data is revoked

A homeowner submits an application to the city for a permit to build an addition to his home. The application contains erroneous calculations which will place the construction 14 feet closer to the street than allowed by current zoning ordinances. The city unknowingly issues the owner a permit based on the erroneous information. The owner begins construction. A neighbor challenges the validity of the owner’s permit. The city confirms the permit was improperly issued since it was approved based on incorrect calculations. The owner completes the construction and obtains a certificate of occupancy. The neighbor demands the city revoke the permit, claiming the front-yard setback violates current zoning ordinances. The city refused to revoke the permit, claiming revocation of the permit would lead to the absurd result of the demolition of 14 feet of the house. A California appeals court held the permit must be revoked since it was based on erroneous calculations and the city did not have the discretion to issue a valid permit that violated zoning laws. [Horwitz v. City of Los Angeles (December 15, 2004) 124 CA4th 1334]

Editor’s note — The city and the homeowner cannot be allowed to keep the improperly issued permit since it could become the foundation for future permit approvals, unless the city amends its zoning ordinances.

Emergency HOA assessment ordered to pay a judgment

A condominium complex is damaged in an earthquake. The homeowner’s association (HOA) for the complex hires an insurance adjuster to obtain the funds necessary to repair the complex under the insurance policy held by the HOA. The insurance adjuster completes his job, but the HOA refuses to pay him. The insurance adjuster obtains a money judgment against the HOA. A court order then requires the HOA to levy an emergency assessment on its members to satisfy the judgment. The HOA claims it cannot be ordered to levy an emergency assessment to satisfy the adjuster’s money judgment since an HOA’s assessment revenue is exempt from execution by a judgment creditor. The insurance adjuster claims the HOA can be ordered to levy an emergency assessment on its members to satisfy the money judgment since his employment by the HOA arose out of an earthquake which qualifies the costs as an extraordinary and unforeseeable expense permitting an emergency assessment. A California appeals court held the HOA must levy an emergency assessment on its members to satisfy the money judgment since the HOA is allowed to levy an emergency assessment to satisfy an extraordinary expense incurred for the benefit of the HOA and its members, such as costs incurred due to an earthquake. [James F. O’Toole Company, Inc. v. Los Angeles Kingsbury Court Owners Association (February 3, 2005) 126 CA4th 549]

Mitigated SFR construction not exempt from CEQA review

An owner of a vacant lot located in an area designated as an “environmental resource of critical concern” applies to the county for a permit to build a single-family residence (SFR). After a preliminary review, the county issues the permit subject to numerous conditions which mitigate concerns about the SFR’s potential adverse environmental impact on the area, and therefore declares the construction catagorically exempt from a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review. An environmental group seeks to set aside the county’s approval of the construction, claiming mitigation measures cannot be considered when determining whether a construction is exempt from a CEQA review. The owner claims the approval should not be set aside and he is entitled to a CEQA review exemption since any adverse impacts have been mitigated by the conditions applied to the permit approval. A California appeals court held the approval for construction of the SFR must be set aside as a procedural error by the county since the exemption of a SFR located within a government designated environmental resource area of critical concern from CEQA review must be determined without reference or reliance on mitigation measures. [Salmon Protection and Watershed Network v. The County of Marin (2004) 125 CA4th 1098]

Easement grant barred reasonable interference by a gate

An owner of a parcel of real estate is dependent on an access easement across a neighbor’s property for ingress and egress to his property. The easement was granted based on wording it would be “kept open and wholly unrestricted.” The neighbor constructs a locked gate across the easement and offers the owner keys to open the gate when he needs to use the easement. The owner demands the gate be removed, claiming the easement must be kept unobstructed since the easement grant specifically stated it was to be kept open. The neighbor refuses to remove the gate, claiming the interference presented by the gate is reasonable and does not need to be removed since he offered the owner keys to unlock the gate. A California appeals court held the neighbor could not in anyway obstruct or restrict the ingress and egress of the easement and must remove the gate since the wording which granted the easement, being specific in providing for an unobstructed outlet, controls over the general rule of reasonable interference. [Van Klompenburg v. Berghold (2005) 126 CA4th 345]