A Hollywood Tenant Faces Eviction Due To A Vindictive Building Manager, An Absentee Power Family And A Failure Of The Courts
LATU’s Hollywood Local has recently organized with tenants facing a less typical kind of harassment.
A landlord’s ability to exert a capricious and tyrannical power over the home life of their tenants is a fundamental consequence of private property relations. In the United States, it is bolstered by a meager regulatory framework, and in California explicitly affirmed by the Ellis Act. The effort to curtail, and ultimately eliminate, this privilege is at the heart of our fight in the Los Angeles Tenants Union.
While harassment from landlords is a familiar experience, LATU’s Hollywood Local has recently organized with tenants facing a less typical kind of harassment, emanating from building managers who have inherited and manipulated this power from absentee landlords.
In November 2016, Apiwe Bubu moved into LPL Villas, a classic Los Angeles bungalow court at Cahuenga Boulevard and Fountain Ave, in the heart of Hollywood. Unlike the rest of the units that make up the medium-sized complex, his was not a small house but a duplex, the first floor of which is occupied by onsite manager Nerissa Orense.
LPL Villas is owned by Lauro Leviste, a member of a powerful family (“one of Batangas’ wealthiest”) that has established a dynastic prominence in business, politics, and even sports in the Philippines. With Leviste living in the Philippines, Orense serves not only as the manager of the complex, but also its legal representative in California.
A working musician, Bubu made sure to discuss the building’s policies and expectations for noise with Orense at the outset of his tenancy. The manager assured him that while she and other tenants had a reasonable expectation for quiet in the evenings, he wouldn’t have any problems working during the daytime.
For more than a year, things went very smoothly at LPL Villas. One issue that arose for Bubu was Orense’s tendency to feed and care for the stray outdoor cats that stalk the grounds of the courtyard. When he noticed the the cat feeding bowls on his side of the shared porch, he asked her to move them to her side.
No action resulted from his request. Instead, Orense started to send him noise complaints, contradicting the explicit mutual understanding that had lasted the length of his tenancy. Responding to plainly and inexplicably hostile messages, Bubu agreed to calmly discuss the issue to work out some new arrangement; an offer Orense did not take up.
A month later, Bubu was dismayed to return home and find that in addition to the cat bowls, Orense had placed cat “houses” on his his side of the porch adjacent to his door. He wrote her again and asked her to move them, emphasizing that he was not comfortable being so close to the animals. This was based on his documented allergy to cats and clinically recognized phobia of them. Orense blithely refused, telling him that his half of the porch was the best place for them and that “he didn’t need to be close to [the cats] while they’re around.”
The bullying noise complaints resumed, with Bubu again offering to discuss the particulars with Orense and work out some kind of satisfactory arrangement. Each of his offers to discuss the issue was ignored. The pattern was clear: Orense had no real interest in resolving the noise levels she claimed were driving her crazy, instead lodging the complaints as a passive-aggressive gambit against Bubu’s reasonable requests about her efforts to cultivate the courtyard’s feral cats.
On June 18, less than a month after Bubu had asked Orense to move her cat houses, he received a no-cause eviction notice. Many other tenants in this situation would have the opportunity to appeal the manager’s pursuit of this bizarre personal vendetta to the buildings’ owner. But with Leviste out of the country and completely inaccessible to Bubu, Orense was able to take advantage of her status as legal agent.
Bubu brought his case to the Eviction Defense Network in order to challenge the retaliatory eviction. By December 2018, he was in court, represented by Elena Popp, to present his case to a jury. After 3 days or trial and an hour of deliberation, the jury returned a decision in Bubu’s favor, finding that the manager’s placement of her cat boxes, and refusal to move them, violated his right to quiet enjoyment of the common areas — and that the eviction notice was served to punish him for complaining.
In February, Orense’s counsel, once again acting on behalf of LPL, filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding verdict with Judge Timothy Patrick Dillon; in essence seeking to reverse the jury’s decision as a matter of law. Orense’s lawyers argued that Bubu’s charge of retaliation was legally insufficient. Their primary argument was that, within the California Civil Code, a retaliation defense must be premised on an explicit statutory right, such as habitality, rather than rights, like the “covenant of quiet enjoyment,” established through case law. Though supported by the judge, this argument appears to contradict section 1942.5(d) of the Civil Code, which states “it is unlawful for a lessor to increase rent, decrease services, cause a lessee to quit involuntarily, bring an action to recover possession, or threaten to do any of those acts, for the purpose of retaliating against the lessee because he or she…has lawfully and peaceably exercised any rights under the law.” (emphasis mine).
Before the judge, Orense’s attorney Lane M. Nussbaum repeatedly stressed that a decision in Bubu’s favor would set a precedent that could serve to expand tenants’ rights in disputing evictions.
Judge Dillon sided in LPL’s favor, vacating the jury’s verdict. Bubu once again faces eviction.
No one has disputed the fact that Bubu is being forced to leave his home because the property manager was annoyed by his efforts to calmly reach a reasonable agreement about the various cat accessories being continually added to the porch in front of his door. At one point, he even offered to move into a different vacant unit on the property, further away from Orense, and she refused outright. Without just-cause eviction protections, a tenant can be sent packing and by all likelihood into homelessness for any reason.
Making use of the scant protections available to him, Bubu was easily and quickly able to persuade a jury that his eviction was unjust. Frightened by the prospect that their decision would mark a step forward for tenants’ rights, Judge Dillon vacated their decision. In short, a Hollywood tenant is set to lose their home due to the negligence of a far-away landlord and a judge’s activist intervention to void a jury’s decision that would affirm a tenant’s full rights granted by the law.
Bubu and LATU organizers have written the Leviste family in the Philippines and are awaiting a response. Are these overseas property owners aware that the manager they have entrusted with their building is wasting their money on an eviction and legal proceedings because she didn’t want to move cat crates five feet away for the sake of a tenant’s health?