Volume 21, Issue 5 | September 2021
News from Oakland City Attorney
Barbara J. Parker
BJP new

  • City Attorney Wins Major Housing Justice Case Against Local Real Estate Empire for Systemic Tenants’ Rights Violations
  • City of Oakland Joins National Coalitions Speaking Out Against Restrictions on Reproductive Choice and For Safe Injection Sites
  • City Attorney Appoints New Member to Public Ethics Commission

Dear Friends and Fellow Oaklanders:

City Hall remains closed during California's statewide Shelter-in-Place order to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) and preserve critical health care capacity. For up-to-date information and resources, see the Alameda County Public Health Department website or the City's COVID-19 information page.

I hope you are staying healthy and safe during these unsettling times.

As always, I invite your comments and thoughts about the newsletter and our Office’s work.
City Attorney Wins Major Housing Justice Case Against Local Real Estate Empire for Systemic Tenants’ Rights Violations

On September 1, the Alameda County Superior Court issued its final Statement of Decision and Permanent Injunction After Trial in People of the State of California and the City of Oakland v. Dodg Corporation, et al. The decision represents a significant triumph for the City and the People in a case my office brought several years ago against the owners of a prominent local real estate and taxi empire for systematically violating the rights of tenants at buildings their family companies own. Not only must the Defendants now comply with tenant protection and health and safety laws at all of their properties, but they owe the City and their former tenants significant redress, including financial penalties to the City and compensation to tenants, for their years of unlawful activity.
When my office brought the Dodg Corp. case in 2019, Oakland had long been facing an unprecedented housing crisis. By 2019, the housing crisis was disproportionately impacting low-income households across the City, with nearly half of rental households in Oakland being rent-burdened (i.e., the household spends over 30 percent of its gross monthly income on rent). Because of the skyrocketing rents, many low and middle-income Oakland residents lived, and still live, under threat of displacement.
Prior to filing the case, my office had already worked with members of City Council and the Mayor’s Office to pass various important laws focusing on protecting Oakland residents, particularly low-income and middle-income residents. We worked closely with the Council to adopt the Tenant Protection Ordinance (TPO) in 2014, which was amended in 2020 to strengthen the TPO’s protections. But for some abusive landlords, neither the 2014 TPO nor its recent amendments were enough to stop their illegal activities.
For years, the defendants in the Dodg Corp. case owned and operated approximately 60 residential rental properties in the City of Oakland (and owned at least 70 more properties in the City). The lawsuit addressed their flagrant disregard for the letter and spirit of the law with respect to six specific rental properties, where the defendants subjected Oakland residents to grave health and safety risks. Defendants’ activities included renting units in substandard conditions, including units never intended or approved for residential use, to tenants who were predominantly low-income immigrants, among them tenants whose primary language is not English. This predatory business model allowed Defendants to profit from renting uninhabitable or dilapidated units, including units that posed severe and imminent fire risks, to tenants who were desperate to find affordable housing and who often lacked the resources to take legal action to defend their rights. When Defendants’ tenants were displaced from their homes because their units were so unsafe, Defendants further violated the law by neglecting to make relocation payments required by local law. 

After a year and a half of hard-fought litigation, because we could not reach a just and equitable settlement that enforced the law and protected the people of Oakland, the case went to trial in early April. In its September 1 Statement of Decision, the Court held that the Defendant corporate entities and individuals Baljit Singh Mann and Surinder K. Mann exhibited a pattern and practice of violating the Tenant Protection Ordinance, and did so in bad faith, and that they created a public nuisance.
The verdict requires that Defendants pay the City over $ 3.9 million in civil penalties for their egregious violations of tenants’ rights. Defendants must also provide long-overdue relocation payments to the dozens of tenants unlawfully displaced from the six properties at issue in this case. Going forward, Defendants also may not operate any of their Oakland-owned residential properties in violation of local or state laws. This means Defendants must promptly and competently address existing and future violations that jeopardize the well-being of their tenants, and must also establish systems for responding to tenant complaints, arranging regular maintenance, and overseeing lease negotiation and termination in compliance with local law.
This case was particularly important because it is what justice for Oakland residents looks like. Victory in this case means that tenants in Oakland do not have to choose between their fundamental rights and having a roof over their head at any cost. Tenants’ rights do matter—to my office, to the city, to the people, and to the courts. No longer will businesses like Dodg. Corporation be able to run roughshod over the people relying on them for shelter, and no longer will landlords feel the same impunity to outright ignore their legal obligations under our local laws.
This case was litigated by the Neighborhood Law Corps and my Housing Justice Initiative. I launched the Housing Justice Initiative last year to significantly expand and prioritize work protecting tenants in Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods and holding abusive landlords accountable.
City of Oakland Joins National Coalitions Speaking Out Against Restrictions on Reproductive Choice and For Safe Injection Sites

The City Attorney’s core work is to provide legal counsel to the City of Oakland, its employees, officers, agencies, boards, and commissions, through drafting ordinances, resolutions, contracts and other legal documents requested by city officials and departments; reviewing city contracts; and representing the city and its employees in litigation matters. But legal advocacy comes in many forms, and one of the ways the City Attorney’s Office has been advocating for the people of Oakland is through a growing and vibrant amicus brief practice. Amicus, or “friend of the court,” briefs, are opportunities for individuals and entities not directly involved in litigation to nonetheless present their positions and perspectives to a court. Amicus briefs can be extremely important: they can help a court understand the gravity of the issue before them, point out the possibility of perverse or unanticipated consequences of a court’s decision, and/or help educate a court on an unusual or tricky issue. And amicus briefs can be extremely influential: courts sometimes adopt their reasoning rather than the reasoning of any party before them, or use what they learn from amici to frame their decision.

In the past month, the City Attorney’s Office has spoken out, along with sister cities, counties, and states, on crucial issues to be heard by the United States Supreme Court. First, we participated in a national effort to push back against Mississippi and other states’ efforts to restrict reproductive justice in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case. That case concerns Mississippi’s effort to restrict pre-viability abortion, and the coalition of public entities we joined sought to show the Court how this issue is not merely one of reproductive justice, but also a core racial justice issue given the racial disparities in access to health care services.

Second, we joined a key group of national advocates pushing to protect local governments’ ability to create and maintain a variety of interventions to respond to the opioid crisis, including safe injection sites. The opioid crisis remains one of the worst public health crises of our time, one that has only been exacerbated by the global pandemic of COVID-19. This case, Safehouse v. Department of Justice, et al., seeks to allow local governments to use all evidence-based interventions, including overdose-prevention sites, in governments’ hard-fought efforts to meet the challenge of the opioid epidemic in their communities. 
City Attorney Appoints New Member to Public Ethics Commission

Last month, I appointed a new member to the Public Ethics Commission (PEC). The new Commissioner, Jessica Leavitt, will serve through January 21, 2024. I am grateful to Commissioner Leavitt for stepping up and stepping in to serve the balance of former Commissioner Butler’s term after she decided to step down after serving two meaningful terms.

Oakland voters created the current iteration of the PEC in 2014 via passage of a City Charter amendment that: (1) expanded the PEC’s powers to enforce fairness, openness, honesty and integrity in Oakland’s government; and (2) changed the qualifications and appointment process for PEC Commissioners. In particular, the 2014 amendment changed the appointment procedure for the Mayor’s three appointments to provide that the City Attorney, Mayor, and City Auditor each appoint one member of the PEC.

Ms. Leavitt is well suited to serve on the PEC. She is an Oakland resident of District Two, and brings a wealth of important perspectives to her new role. She is an experienced attorney who has worked for local government (including serving as a Deputy City Attorney in my office), for other public sector entities (such as when she was Special Assistant to the Chief Trial Counsel for the State Bar of California), and for the private sector (for instance, in her current role as compliance counsel to a multinational public company). She has served on multiple boards before, including on local boards (as chair of the Rent Board and on the Library Advisory Commission) and a state board (the CA Board of Vocational Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians). Her commitment to public service is unquestionable, and I am proud that Commissioner Leavitt will serve as my appointee in this crucial part of city government. 
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