Friday, January 9, 2009
Court of Appeal Says Judge Imposed ‘Impossible Conditions’ on Litigants
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Procedural irregularities by retired Downey Municipal Court Judge Leon Emerson, while he was sitting on assignment in Orange Superior Court, cast doubt on the fairness of his ruling awarding a money judgment to Maria de Jesus Lagunas Espinoza in her unlawful detainer claim against Gudelia Calva and Jorge Soqui, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
The opinion by Justice William F. Rylaarsdam published on Wednesday criticized Emerson for having imposed “impossible conditions” by limiting counsel for Calva and Soqui to 20 minutes to present their defense and later refusing their properly submitted request for a statement of decision.
Espinoza had filed suit to evict Calva and Soqui after they allegedly defaulted on three months rent, then failed to pay the past-due amount or vacate after receiving a three-day notice.
At trial, Calva and Soqui attempted to cross-examine Espinoza on issues related to the habitability of the rented property, but Emerson sustained Espinoza’s objections, ruling that the issues of habitability were “irrelevant since there was a default in rent.”
After Espinoza rested her case and a recess, Emerson announced the case would have to finish in 20 minutes because he “had a jury’ the next day, and it was already 20 minutes to 5.” He then allowed defense counsel to make an offer of proof, which was comprised of the statement that his clients would “testify to all of the facts set forth in the First Amended Answer to the Complaint.”
The answer had asserted affirmative defenses based on the building’s non-compliance with building codes and lack of certification for occupancy, as well as Espinoza’s failure to make repairs, shutting off of services and locking the tenants out of the premises for four weeks.
Calva and Soqui requested the trial court render “specific findings” in the statement of decision as to each of the affirmative defenses, but Emerson said he “did not do findings” because he did not have a secretary and that Calva and Soqui were not entitled to findings as a matter of law.
Emerson later found that Calva and Soqui owed $3,350 in rent, but because of the condition of the property and “two days’ lockout,” he reduced that amount by $1000. He entered judgment awarded possession of the premises and $2350, plus costs, to Espinoza.
The Orange Superior Court Appellate Division affirmed Emerson’s decision, but writing for Div. Three, Rylaarsdam noted “an appearance of unfairness which pervades the record” which mandated reversal.
He explained that a trial court has a mandatory duty to provide a statement of decision when properly requested.
“The refusal of the trial court to comply because the court did not have a secretary was frivolous at best because the court was authorized to issue an oral statement of decision,” Rylaarsdam added.
Although the amount in dispute in this action may have been relatively small, the issues were of great importance to the litigants, the justice commented.
The “summary nature of the proceedings” was “distressing,” he wrote, because the trial court effectively precluded the tenants from presenting their defense by limiting their presentation to 20 minutes.
As for the tenants’ affirmative defenses, Rylaarsdam reasoned that the trial court’s reduction in the amount past due rent implied a finding that the property was not tenantable, and that the trial court’s ruling failed to comply with its duties under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1174.2.
Sec. 1174.2 provides that if a landlord is in breach of her obligations to maintain a property, the trial court the court must determine the reasonable rental value of the premises in its untenantable state to the date of trial, limit the future monthly rent to this amount until repairs are made, deny possession to the landlord, and adjudge the tenant to be the prevailing party, conditioned upon the payment of past-due rent.
Additionally, Rylaarsdam concluded that occupancy of the rental property was illegal because no certificate of occupancy had been issued for it, and so the lease of it was an illegal contract. Due to the illegality of the lease agreement, Espinoza was not entitled to an award for past due rent under it, the justice said.
Presiding Justice David G. Sills and Justice Raymond J. Ikola joined Rylaarsdam in his opinion.
The case is Espinoza v. Calva, 09 S.O.S. 215.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company