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Ninth Circuit hands LA a reprieve on sweeping homeless orders

The panel found the judge's use of outside evidence and reports to conclude structural racism has caused the homelessness crisis was an overstep of judicial discretion.

(CN) — Tossing a sweeping court order requiring the city and county of Los Angeles to house homeless people living on the 50-block open air encampment known as Skid Row by October, a Ninth Circuit panel on Thursday found the federal judge in the case lacked the authority to issue such an order.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen, writing on behalf of fellow Barack Obama appointees John B. Owens and Michelle T. Friedland, found U.S. District Judge David O. Carter abused his discretion when he ordered Los Angeles officials to set aside $1 billion to address the homelessness crisis and house all homeless people living on Skid Row within 180 days.

Carter, a Bill Clinton appointee, found structural racism — including discriminatory lending, real estate covenants, redlining, freeway construction, eminent domain, exclusionary zoning and unequal access to shelter and affordable housing — created the homelessness crisis which disproportionately affected Black Angelenos.

Despite making up only 8% of the general LA population, Black people make up 42% of the region’s unhoused population according to county data.

But the lawsuit filed by LA Alliance for Human Rights — an organization of business owners, downtown LA residents and formerly homeless people — did not claim race discrimination led to the exacerbation of the homelessness crisis in LA, where nearly one in four unhoused people in the United States live.

“None of plaintiffs’ claims is based on racial discrimination, and the district court’s order is largely based on unpled claims and theories,” Nguyen wrote.

She added: “To fill the gap, the district court impermissibly resorted to independent research and extra-record evidence.”

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a statement even though “we won an important victory in the Ninth Circuit today” the city remains in a homelessness crisis.

“All officials need to share Judge Carter's intense sense of urgency," Feuer said. "With today's ruling, the ball is now squarely in the court of elected leaders. That means deeper collaboration between the city and county, additional state and federal resources, fundamental improvements in engaging people experiencing homelessness, and more — driving to real solutions that reduce street homelessness and make our public spaces once again safe and accessible for everyone."

During the appellate hearing in the case, LA deputy city attorney Michael Walsh told the panel Carter’s injunction “interferes with the city’s ongoing homelessness projects” where were formulated and implemented by elected officials.

An annual homeless count found 66,436 people were unhoused in LA County in 2020, a nearly 13% increase from 2019. In the city of Los Angeles, more than 41,000 people were homeless in 2020, up 16% from the prior year.

In the 29-page order issued Thursday, Nguyen noted of the six claims Carter had found the LA Alliance for Human Rights was likely to succeed on, four of them had not been asserted by the organization and the eight individual plaintiffs.

Likewise, Carter’s explanation for why the group would succeed on the claims relied on legal theories not pleaded in their lawsuit.

In the reversal, Nguyen found the LA Alliance for Human Rights was unlikely to prevail in court on all but one race-based claim, especially since the LA Alliance had not claimed any of its members were Black and unhoused.

“Because LA Alliance has not shown that its members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right, it lacks associational standing for these five claims, and we need not reach the other elements of the associational standing test,” Nguyen wrote.

The group and individual plaintiffs did not prove standing to bring the “state-created danger” claim alleging the risk of premature death for those living in homeless encampments.

“Plaintiffs did not allege or argue that there is a special relationship between the city and unhoused residents of Skid Row, or that any individual plaintiff experiences ‘restraints of personal liberty’ sufficient to create an affirmative duty for the city to act to protect their rights. Plaintiffs have therefore not clearly shown that they themselves were injured by any failure to protect anyone with whom the city does have a special relationship. Such allegations would be required for plaintiffs to have standing,” Nguyen wrote.

While the panel found two individual plaintiffs who use wheelchairs had standing to bring Americans with Disabilities Act claims based on their inability to traverse public sidewalks in downtown LA where encampments are erected, Nguyen found Carter’s injunctive remedies were not narrowly tailored.

Ordering the wholesale clearing of 50-plus blocks “may be [a] significantly broader remedy than required” for the duo to safely navigate sidewalks to complete errands and daily activities, Nguyen wrote.

“The district court undoubtedly has broad equitable power to remedy legal violations that have contributed to the complex problem of homelessness in Los Angeles. But that power must be exercised consistent with its discretionary authority," she wrote.

The panel remanded the case to Carter for further proceedings “consistent” with the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

The LA Alliance for Human Rights said in a statement the ruling “has identified a pathway to hold the city and county accountable for their failed response to LA’s homelessness crisis.”

The group added: “The court issued a narrow ruling this morning focused on procedural steps in the case but not the underlying law. We are greatly encouraged because the issues identified can be quickly addressed and we look forward to returning to Judge Carter’s courtroom in the coming weeks.”

Matthew Umhofer of Spertus, Landes & Umhofer represents LA Alliance.

“No one disputes the extreme urgency of these matters. With winter approaching, the scale of human misery and degradation will only increase. The city and county must act now,” Umhofer said in a statement.

Follow Bianca Bruno on Twitter.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Regional

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