Munger, Tolles & Olson Prevails in Pro Bono Appellate Victory

Working with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and the Inner City Law Center, Munger, Tolles & Olson obtained a complete appellate victory on behalf of two renters and all 16 million California tenants when for the first time in a published opinion the Appellate Division of Los Angeles Superior Court held on Sept. 8, 2017, that tenants have a right to trial by jury of the habitability defense to an eviction action.

In 2014, our clients were served with an unlawful detainer complaint alleging that they had failed to pay their rent, and requesting possession of their home, forfeiture of the rental agreement, past due rent and damages. Our clients denied these allegations and asserted that the landlord had breached the warranty of habitability by failing to maintain their home in proper condition. Our clients prevailed after a jury trial, and their landlord appealed.

The landlord then started a second unlawful detainer action. Prior to the start of the trial in this second case, our clients again requested that the defense of breach of the warranty of habitability be tried by a jury. A different lower court judge ruled there was no such jury trial right, and a bench trial followed. The lower court then found that no substantial breach of the warranty of habitability was established, and ruled in favor of the landlord, even though the judge in the first case (exercising continuing jurisdiction) had determined that the landlord had not yet remedied the habitability breaches found by the jury in the first unlawful detainer action. Our clients appealed.

Munger, Tolles & Olson then briefed and argued both appeals. In the appeal of second case, our attorneys asserted that the court deprived our clients of their California constitutional and statutory rights to have a jury determine all factual issues regarding the defense of breach of the warranty of habitability, including whether the conditions of their apartment violated habitability standards and, if so, the appropriate reduction in the amount of rent due.

The appellate court found that defendants do have a statutory right to a jury trial on all factual issues related to the breach of the warranty of habitability defense, and reversed the judgment in the second case. The appellate court declined to reach the constitutional issue, given its determination that a statutory jury right exists. The appellate court also affirmed the judgment for our clients in the first action that the landlord had breached the warranty of habitability.

The lawyers involved in the matter include Ellen M. Richmond, Christopher M. Lynch, Michael E. Soloff, and Fred A. Rowley, Jr.