LOS ANGELES (CN) - Los Angeles Superior Court's closure of 21 of its 26 courtrooms for eviction hearings illegally "shuts the courthouse doors on many of the county's most vulnerable residents" community organizers claim in a federal lawsuit.
The 21 unlawful detainer courts will close their doors this afternoon. Beginning Monday, unlawful detainer cases must be filed either in the downtown Stanley Mosk Courthouse, or in Pasadena, Long Beach, Santa Monica, or Antelope Valley.
Lead plaintiff Brenda Miles and four nonprofits sued Presiding Superior Court Judge David Wesley, the State of California, Gov. Jerry Brown, and L.A. Superior Court Clerk John Clarke in Federal Court.
They claim the state's response to its judicial funding crisis violated the Fair Housing Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the First and 14th Amendments.
Plaintiffs include nonprofits Union de Vecinos, the Coalition for Economic Survival, People Organized for Westside Renewal, and the Independent Living Center of Southern California.
Facing a $56 million to $85 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year, the closings will include 10 regional courthouses, court spokeswoman Mary Hearn told the Los Angeles Times.
Last year 67,182 unlawful detainers complaints were filed by landlords in Los Angeles County, Hearn said. Unlawful detainers are filed when a tenant refuses to leave an apartment or leased property after receiving an eviction notice.
The complaint states: "On March 18, 2013, the Los Angeles County Superior Court will cease operating 21 of the 26 local unlawful detainer courtrooms that tens of thousands of County residents depend on for adjudication of their right to remain in their homes. The elimination of unlawful detainer hearings in neighborhood courthouses near low-income minority communities and individuals with disabilities effectively shuts the courthouse doors on many of the County's most vulnerable residents, in circumstances where meaningful access to justice can make the difference between homelessness and a secure place to live. For example, the Court's plan will eliminate all the unlawful detainer courtrooms in the San Fernando Valley, which is home to more than 1.75 million people - making it larger than all but the four largest cities in the United States - and home to more individuals with disabilities than any other part of the County.
"The Court's plan delivers a devastating blow to individuals with disabilities and violates its obligation to make courts accessible to people with disabilities. Yet, as the Court has acknowledged, it did not even consider the impact of its plan on tenants with disabilities.
"The Court's actions will force thousands of low-income Black, Latino and Asian tenants and tenants with disabilities to spend five hours or more traveling to distant courthouses and back, simply to have their day in court. Residents of the San Fernando Valley, for example, will be forced to travel to Santa Monica or Pasadena - areas to which there is no adequate public transit route from the Valley. Because of the expedited nature of the unlawful detainer process and the Court's refusal to accept answers for filing in local courthouses, tenants will have to make the arduous, expensive and in many cases virtually impossible trip to an unfamiliar courthouse at least twice in less than a month's time.
"Virtually all of the Black, Latino, and Asian tenants and tenants with disabilities who will be severely burdened by the elimination of local unlawful detainer courtrooms have no legal representation for their unlawful detainer cases. For many unrepresented tenants, the increased burden created by the elimination of local unlawful detainer hearings will turn an already difficult process into an insurmountable challenge.
"Thus, as the Court has acknowledged, the elimination of local hearings will inevitably result in a dramatic increase in the number of unlawful detainer cases
decided by default, regardless of the merits of tenants' cases. Tenants with disabilities and other tenants in low-income minority communities across Los Angeles County will become homeless, and the supply of affordable housing will plummet, as increased defaults will allow landlords to raise the rent on properties subject to local rent-control ordinances.
"Despite the inevitable and dramatic impact of the Court's actions on individuals with disabilities and low-income minority communities, the Court reached its decision to eliminate local unlawful detainer hearings without input from these communities or the organizations that represent them or an analysis of harm.
On February 28, 2013, the Court ordered that unlawful detainer cases will no longer be filed in neighborhood courtrooms after March 18, 2013 - despite previous representations that no changes would take place until July 1, 2013. The Order also stated that pending unlawful detainer cases would be transferred. Plaintiffs therefore bring this action to challenge the Los Angeles County Superior Court's denial of access to justice to thousands of low-income minority tenants and tenants with disabilities who rely on local unlawful detainer courtrooms for their day in court."
The community groups add: "Some unscrupulous landlords take advantage of the uneven playing field in unlawful detainer cases by filing weak or meritless cases in the hope that tenants will lose by default. This is particularly true for long-term tenancies in apartments subject to rent control ordinances, where an eviction allows the landlord to raise the rent. Defaults in these cases deplete the supply of affordable housing in the county. Thus, many low-income tenants have to defend multiple actions, and traveling to distant courthouses will be a repeat hardship."
The plaintiffs claim the Superior Court has acknowledged that closing the courtrooms will "inevitably result in a dramatic increase in the number of unlawful detainer cases decided by default, regardless of the merits of tenants' cases."
And the court plans to introduce a "streamlined new system" to handle defaults.
Named plaintiffs Miles of Northridge and Dane Sullivan of North Hills both have "severe" disabilities and each received unlawful detainer complaints from their landlords.
Miles, who says she received an eviction notice because of her "companion animal," says she will to travel 26 miles to Pasadena, when the court 9 miles away closes.
Sullivan, now 7 miles from a court, says he will have to travel 26 miles.
The plaintiffs are represented by Maria Palomares with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.
The Superior Court and Governor's Office declined to comment.
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