LOS ANGELES - Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gregory C. O'Brien, Jr. today dismissed a lawsuit filed against a local tenants' association and its members in retaliation for their free speech. The tenants and their association had been sued by the owner of Lincoln Place, a 795-unit apartment complex, for engaging in advocacy on behalf of low-income tenants. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California defended the First Amendment rights of the tenants and their association.
The Lincoln Place Tenants' Association is a community-based organization that, since the late-1980's, has fought to preserve affordable housing in the Venice community. In particular, the tenants' association has been fighting developers' plans to evict Lincoln Place tenants, tear down their homes, and replace them with luxury townhouses that would be out of reach to low- and moderate-income tenants. Many of the people who live at Lincoln Place, including members of the tenants' association, are elderly, disabled, or single mothers. If their homes were destroyed, they would have nowhere else to go.
On September 20, 2000, the Lincoln Place owners and developers sued the tenants' association and 12 individual tenants in direct retaliation for their advocacy activities. The case, Pfeiffer Venice Properties LLC v. Bernard, et al., Superior Ct. No. BC 237108, is a classic Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation ("SLAPP"), brought by a well-financed private land development company to chill the free speech of grassroots activists. In 1992, the California Legislature enacted strong protections against SLAPP suits, allowing courts to throw out such litigation at an early stage and to award fees to activists wrongfully sued in retaliation for their free speech.
The tenants' association and its members filed a SLAPP motion on November 17, 2000, after the companies refused to dismiss their meritless lawsuit. The development companies amended their complaint on December 5, 2000, dropping their claims against all but two of the individual tenants. The tenants' association and the two remaining tenants to file a second SLAPP motion on February 5, 2001.
Judge O'Brien today granted the tenants' second SLAPP motion in its entirety. Describing the lawsuit as offensive, Judge O'Brien threw out all the developer's claims against the tenants' and the tenants association.
"This lawsuit was an abuse of the legal process," said Dan Toakji, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, "brought by a well-financed neighborhood bully to intimidate tenants brave enough to stand up for their rights. From start to finish, the Lincoln Place owners have tried to silence anyone who disagrees with their plans to destroy affordable housing in the Venice community. Today's ruling shows that the SLAPP law has teeth, and sends a loud and clear message that companies will pay a heavy price if they attempt to bludgeon community advocates through litigation."
Within 10 days, the tenants' association will be filing a motion for attorneys' fees against the Lincoln Place owners, as provided for by California's anti-SLAPP law to punish those who abuse the legal process as Lincoln Place's owners have done.