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Trailer Owners Can Take Retaliation Case to Trial

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A Napa County property owner must face claims that its attempt to replace a mobile home park with a condominium discriminates against Latinos, a federal judge ruled.

Hall Vineland Property owns a mobile home park near St. Helen, Calif. Park tenants rent space from Hall Vineland, but own the mobile homes themselves.

In the summer of 2009, Hall Vineland general partner Kathryn Hall met with park tenants to discuss plans to close and upgrade the property. Hall, the former ambassador to Austria, offered the residents money to move. Seven families accepted, but six families who had been living in the park for nine years rejected the offers.

An attorney for five of the families told Hall that her attempts to close the park and build homes that the current tenants could not afford might be illegal. In a second letter, the lawyer warned that the plans would almost certainly violate state and federal laws against housing discrimination since most of the tenants were Latino.

When St. Helena considered passing a resolution supporting the tenants, Hall emailed Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon in January 2010 to say that the city would be giving the "tenants false hope that the property will remain affordable which it will not."

Hall increased the tenants' rates, ranging from 14 percent to 29 percent, that July.

Hall and the property owner moved for summary judgment, but U.S. District Judge Willaim Alsup said last week that any claims arising out of a retaliation theory will go to trial on March 19.

Based on this definition, Judge Alsup ruled that the plaintiffs had engaged in a protected activity by sending letters to the defendants alleging misconduct on the part of the defendants, especially the second letter sent in March 2010.

"A reasonable jury could conclude that the notices of rent increase and subsequent rent increases were acts of interference, coercion, threat, or intimidation," Alsup wrote.

A trial might also prove that Hall's email to the county supervisor was retaliatory. "Any reasonable juror" could see a link between the letter and Hall's subsequent actions against the tenants in total, and the plaintiffs in particular, the order states.

Though raising rates to better match fair market values would qualify as a "nondiscriminatory reason for raising rents," the letters and emails may indicate a retaliatory motive.

Hall and the company claim that they did not raise the rent for the first two years they owned the property because they did not want to burden the tenants.

Alsup said all these facts make the case too ambiguous for summary judgment.

State and federal law make it illegal to "refuse to rent or sell" to someone based on many factors, including "national origin."

After the trial, a case conference will address any remaining claims, Alsup said. As of the date of the ruling, the mobile home park has not been closed, and the plaintiffs still live there as tenants.

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