Friday, March 6, 2009
Court Revives Suit by Tenant Locked Out After Losing Job
Fact That Plaintiff’s Employer Leased Apartment Did Not Support Summary Judgment, Panel Says
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Sixth District Court of Appeal has reinstated an action against a landlord by a woman who was locked out at the request of her former employer, a company that leased the apartment for her but told the landlord it wanted her out after she left the job due to what she said was a work-related injury.
The summary judgment in favor of the owner and managers of the Briarwood Apartments in Sunnyvale was erroneous, Justice Richard McAdams said.
The plaintiff, McAdams explained, may be a third-party beneficiary of the lease, which would permit her to sue the landlord for breach of contract. And even if she had no rights under the lease, she may have tort and statutory claims not necessarily predicated on her being the defendant’s “tenant,” the justice said.
The plaintiff, Lori Spinks, came to California in late 2004 as an employee of Mobile Medical Staffing, LLC. The Ohio-based company engaged her to perform a 13-wek assignment at Stanford University Health Sciences, and as part of that engagement agreed to supply her with housing for the period beginning two days before, and ending two days after, her assignment.
The company entered into a lease for a furnished apartment at Briarwood, to be occupied by “Corporate Mobile Medical Staff.” A separate letter identified Spinks as the person who would occupy the unit for the period in question
The engagement, and the lease term, were subsequently extended for an additional 13 weeks, into the first week of May 2005. According to her evidence, Spinks was seriously injured at work in January 2005 and had hand surgery the following month, and could not fully return to work.
Notified by Company
In February, Spinks declared, the company notified her it would no longer provide her with housing or a car, would have the utilities cut off and the furniture picked up, and would stop paying rent on the apartment. Mobile Medical then notified the landlord to change the locks on the apartment “immediately.”
Spinks sued Briarwood and its management company in Santa Clara Superior Court on various contract, statutory, and tort theories. The defendants pled a number of defenses, including lack of privity, consent, and abandonment.
The defendants moved for summary judgment or summary adjudication, arguing that Spinks had no case because she was neither a tenant nor a third party beneficiary of the lease. The plaintiff responded that she was a third-party beneficiary, since the tenancy was specifically established for her benefit, and that even if she was a mere occupant and not a tenant, she could still sue on statutory and tort theories.
Superior Court Judge Kevin J. Murphy granted summary judgment, finding that Spinks was not a third-party beneficiary and not a tenant, and therefore could not establish liability on any theory. The judge also awarded the defendants $52,000 in attorney fees under Civil Code Sec. 789.3, which provides for an award to the prevailing party in an action based on allegations that the landlord locked a tenant out or cut off utilities with intent to force a tenant to leave.
But McAdams, writing for the Court of Appeal, said there was conflicting evidence as to whether the intent of the lease was to benefit Spinks. “For one thing, she was allowed to move into the apartment,” the justice noted.
On the other hand, he pointed out, there may not have been a specific understanding between Mobile and Briarwood that Spinks would be the person occupying the apartment during the lease term. But the fact that the lease term was virtually identical to the term of her employment suggests that she was, McAdams said.
In any event, he concluded, the trial judge was wrong to rule that she could not be a third party beneficiary as a matter of law. And if she was, he explained, she had rights under the lease that may have been violated by her dispossession.
The justice went on to say that even if she was not a “tenant,” Spinks had a right to peaceable possession of the premises that could only be disturbed by legal process. Her evidence that Briarwood interfered with that possession, he said, was sufficient to create triable issues with respect to her claims for wrongful eviction, trespass, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence, as well as her statutory lock-out and illegal entry claims.
There was also conflicting evidence, McAdams said, as to whether the plaintiff and her employer intended to limit her right to the apartment in the event she left her employment early, so summary adjudication or summary judgment could not be based on the contention that she was a trespasser or a mere licensee.
The justice also rejected the claim that the landlord’s conduct, even if wrongful, could not have been so outrageous as to constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress, which might support a punitive damage award.
The on-site apartment manager, McAdams noted, had expressed misgivings about locking Spinks out of her apartment. The defendants’ “deliberate and intentional” actions in dispossessing plaintiff despite those concerns may satisfy the outrageousness requirement, the justice said.
McAdams did side with the landlord on one issue, concluding that Spinks may not claim punitive damages for breach of the lease’s implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. California law only allows punitive damage awards for bad-faith breach of contract in the insurance context, the justice explained.
The case is Spinks v. Equity Residential Briarwood Apartments, 09 S.O.S. 1304.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company