Volume 20, Issue 5 | May/June 2020
News from Oakland City Attorney
Barbara J. Parker
BJP new
This month:

  • Council unanimously extends Emergency Eviction Moratorium co-sponsored by City Attorney through August 31
  • Office of the City Attorney issues FAQ Guidance highlighting Oaklanders’ protections from harassment and discrimination during the COVID-19 crisis
  • City Council unanimously passes Resolution co-sponsored by City Attorney, calling for measures to protect health, safety and lives of detainees and inmates in Alameda County jails and facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • City Attorney files lawsuit to stop tenants’ illegal eviction
  • Federal Court of Appeals reinstates City’s climate change lawsuit against the world’s five largest publicly traded fossil fuel companies (“Big Oil”)
  • City Attorney’s Housing Justice Initiative video interview series
  • City Attorney’s Message

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 .
Council Extends Oakland’s Emergency Eviction Moratorium through August 31st

On May 19, City Council unanimously passed legislation that I co-sponsored with Councilmembers Bas and Kalb to extend Oakland’s Emergency Eviction Moratorium through August 31. The moratorium protects both residential and commercial tenants from eviction for non-payment of rent. The original moratorium, passed on March 27, was set to expire on May 31.

The Emergency Eviction Moratorium is helping to keep individuals housed and to prevent permanent closure of small businesses that otherwise would be forced to permanently close during this global crisis. Moreover, given our local and state health officers’ shelter-in-place orders and recommendations, the extension of the moratorium through August 31 helps to keep all community members healthy by reducing housing instability and allowing Oaklanders to safely shelter in their homes.

Guidance Protecting Civil Rights of all Oaklanders

On June 15, I released new guidance to make sure all Oaklanders are aware that local, state, and federal civil rights protections remain in full force and effect during the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidance, released in the form of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), aims to assist individuals, businesses, and advocates in understanding what types of choices and activities remain illegal during the global health crisis. African Americans are disproportionately dying during the pandemic and they are disproportionately homeless. There also has been a marked increase in targeting of people of Asian descent and disabled people during the pandemic .

Unfortunately, such discrimination is not a new phenomenon. African Americans have been subject to harassment, assault, torture and murder for centuries; Latinos, Asians, other Oaklanders of color, and disabled people, also have been subject to harassment, assault, and other harms. The current public health crisis has only exacerbated those harms, with hatred and fear fueled by certain elected officials across the country and in the highest office in the land. I released this guidance because I wanted to make clear that Oakland will not tolerate unlawful discrimination of any kind. Now more than ever, we need to protect and uphold the rights of our colleagues, families, neighbors, and friends.

The FAQs detail which civil rights laws remain in effect and explain what kinds of behaviors are considered unlawful harassment or discrimination. They also walk readers through the penalties associated with violating others’ civil rights, provide those experiencing harassment and discrimination with resources to vindicate their rights, and list additional sources of reliable COVID-19 information. To ensure they are accessible to all Oaklanders, they are being released in English , Spanish , Chinese , and Vietnamese , and can be made available in other languages if requested.
California Legislature Places Measure on November Ballot that will Repeal of Proposition 209

In 1996 Proposition 209 amended the California Constitution to ban affirmative action in public employment, public education, and public contracting. On June 24 th the California Legislature took the final step to pass ACA 5, a constitutional amendment that will repeal Proposition 209. The measure will be placed on the November 2020 ballot. 

I wrote a letter to the state legislature as the bill was working its way through the State Assembly urging support for Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 . And our City Council unanimously passed a resolution which I co-sponsored, endorsing ACA 5.

I urged the legislature to pass the amendment to allow consideration of race, sex and ethnicity in public contracting, public education and public employment. Affirmative action is a critical tool to provide equal opportunity and remediate centuries-long discrimination.

While much of the debate about the initiative has centered on college admissions, Proposition 209 prevents Oakland from implementing equitable hiring and contracting practices. A 2015 report commissioned by the Equal Justice Society shows that businesses owned by women and people of color have lost at least one billion dollars a year because Proposition 209 prevents the City of Oakland from awarding contracts in an equitable manner. As I wrote in my letter to the state legislature, this loss of opportunity exacerbates historical disparities in economic well-being for excluded groups and perpetuates disadvantages that have far-reaching economic and social justice consequences for our state. To undo the damage caused by this nation’s history of legal discrimination against Black people, Latinos and other people of color, and the ongoing systemic racism and implicit bias that permeate every aspect of our lives, we must take race into account in making decisions in public contracting, education and employment.
City Attorney Filed Tenant Protection Lawsuit to Prevent Illegal Eviction During Shelter-in-Place

In May, I filed a Tenant Protection Ordinance lawsuit charging local landlords with engaging in an unlawful, self-help eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic in violation of state and local laws. Under the guise of a fraudulent City notice, the landlords removed all of their tenants’ belongings from their home and changed the locks.

More than a week later, the tenants remained without their possessions and unable to use their kitchen. They were forced to sleep on the floor and could not lock their doors. Defendants only returned the tenants’ beds, clothing, and other personal items after the City filed this lawsuit. Housing stability is more critical than ever during a global pandemic, and attempting to illegally evict tenants threatens both their health and the health of our community.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue a temporary restraining order and injunction and to appoint a receiver to prevent immediate harm to tenants from continued violation of state and local law, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit also seeks civil penalties, punitive damages, and fees, to be determined by the court.

This case was filed by the Neighborhood Law Corps and Community Lawyering and Civil Rights Unit as part of my Housing Justice Initiative. Read more here , and watch a video series about the Housing Justice Initiative below.

Protecting Tenants from Vigilante Evictions and Harassment During the COVID-19 Crisis

In addition to the Congress Avenue case mentioned above, I intervened in two cases where utility shutoffs left tenants without access to electricity for weeks during the shelter-in-place orders/recommendations. In both cases, the owners refused to restore power to the units until they received letters from our Office, which notified them that their conduct was illegal and demanded that they reinstate service to their tenants’ homes.

Three additional warning letters sent by the City Attorney’s Office helped stabilize tenants’ housing situations during this difficult time. We sent these letters to landlords who engaged in a range of misconduct, including initiating a physical altercation with their tenant, seeking to enforce a move out agreement that was not compliant with local law at the beginning of the shelter-in-place, and harassing their tenants with unlawful entries into their units. One landlord was caught on film breaking into the unit of a tenant with COVID-19 symptoms through her bedroom window – that tenant had been instructed by a medical professional to self-quarantine.

These actions were taken by the Neighborhood Law Corps and Community Lawyering and Civil Rights Unit as part of my Housing Justice Initiative. You can watch a video series on the Housing Justice Initiative below.

Tenants who are facing harassment during the COVID-19 crisis are encouraged to reach out to nonprofits regarding legal representation.
In Brief

Oakland Wins Critical Decision in Climate Change Lawsuits
In a unanimous ruling, the Ninth Circuit reversed a decision dismissing the climate change lawsuits filed by Oakland and San Francisco in September 2017. The panel rejected the arguments raised by the defendant fossil fuel companies in this and similar suits around the country, holding: (1) the state-law claim for public nuisance related to the impacts of global warming on public infrastructure “does not arise under federal law;” (2) the cases are not entirely preempted by the Clean Air Act; and (3) as a result, the cases should not have been dismissed.

We brought these lawsuits to hold the five largest publicly owned fossil fuel companies in the world responsible for the costs of sea walls and other infrastructure necessary to protect Oakland and San Francisco from ongoing and future consequences of climate change and sea level rise caused by their production of massive amounts of fossil fuels.
The defendant companies – Chevron, ConocoPhilips, Exxon Mobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell – knew for decades that fossil fuel-driven global warming and accelerated sea level rise posed a catastrophic risk to human beings and to public and private property. Despite that knowledge, the companies continued to aggressively produce, market and sell vast quantities of fossil fuels for a global market, while engaging in an organized campaign to deceive consumers about the dangers of massive fossil fuel production.

Both cases were sent back to the district court for further proceedings to determine whether any basis for federal court jurisdiction remains, or whether the cases should return to the state courts where they were originally filed.

Oakland and Centro Legal win settlement in illegal “owner move-in” lawsuit

I am pleased to announce that, along with our partners at Centro Legal de la Raza, we reached a settlement in a Tenant Protection Ordinance lawsuit. The case was based on a fraudulent “owner move-in” case, one of the few just causes for eviction under Oakland law. Some landlords try to illegally displace tenants by fraudulently claiming that they (or a relative) plans to move into the unit, using this unlawful action to evict their current rent-controlled tenant or increase rents for the property by exorbitant amounts. This fraud exacerbates Oakland’s housing crisis, depriving low-income tenants of their homes and violating their legal rights. (To learn more about owner move-ins, read FAQs created by Centro Legal de la Raza and my office .)

The tenant in this case, Salvador Sotelo, has lived in rent-controlled West Oakland housing with his family for over 15 years. In 2016, their landlord Rong Fu Lee attempted to raise Mr. Sotelo’s rent by nearly 200% using the “owner move-in” exemption. But utility bills and neighbors’ observations revealed no one was living in the unit. The owners also threatened and intimidated the Sotelos: entering their home without lawful notice, yelling at their tenants, videotaping them, and repeatedly telling them they needed to leave.

The settlement requires that defendants pay $300,000 to the City and the tenants, hire professional property management for the building, and provide notice to the City for any Rent Adjustment Program or eviction filings at any of their properties across Oakland for the next five years. Moreover, when defendants refused to make the required payment, we requested that the court hold them in contempt. A few days after the hearing, defendants sent the final payment.

“I didn’t know I had any rights…until one day, my neighbor told me ‘You need to get legal help,” Mr. Sotelo shared. “What I can tell [other tenants] from my experience is to arm yourself with courage and reclaim your rights. Institutions like Causa Justa, like Centro Legal de la Raza, and also the good people from the City of Oakland are willing to help.”

The lawsuit began in March 2018, when the City Attorney’s Neighborhood Law Corps joined Centro Legal de la Raza in filing suit against the owners.

WATCH: Housing Justice Initiative Interview Series
I recently launched the Housing Justice Initiative to significantly expand our work protecting vulnerable Oakland tenants and holding abusive landlords accountable. We created  an interview series  so that you can hear ​directly from some of the tenants we've stood alongside, as well as some of our nonprofit partners, why housing justice is essential in Oakland.
City Attorney’s Message

All of us already are unsettled and trying to cling to some semblance of normalcy during the pandemic that is ravaging the health and ending the lives of so many people, yet again highlighting the systemic racism that permeates every aspect of our lives. George Floyd’s murder sadly is the most recent in a long, tortured history of devaluing Black lives.

I applaud the protestors and stand with them. Thanks to their commitment to exercising their First Amendment rights, this issue has taken center stage. I appreciate the critical importance of the protests in Oakland and across our country expressing rage, pain and resolve to ensure that Mr. Floyd’s tragic - and absolutely without any justification - killing at the hands of a police officer does not become yet another moment that fades into the distance as we return to business as usual. As callous and depraved as Mr. Floyd’s murder was, his death is only one of many, many, spanning centuries. Recently, Amaud Abery was hunted and murdered for jogging while Black in an upscale (translated “white”) neighborhood; Breonna Taylor was shot to death in the middle of the night while sleeping in her own bed in a no-knock raid; and Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back three times as he was running away from the police who were attempting to arrest him for intoxication.

This is our moment to complete the unfinished business of ensuring justice and equity and making sure this country lives up to its ideals.

There is much work before us and a long road ahead. The outpouring of grief, anguish and rage reflected in the protests we are witnessing across our country and demands for justice now have elevated this issue to a top priority for our nation. We need to sustain that passion and urgency and translate this groundswell into concrete measures to upend our racist culture and institutions.

On June 19 th protestors and marches and ceremonies were held to commemorate the 155 th anniversary of Juneteenth, the day that enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas learned that they had been freed two and half years earlier. Words fail me when we witness over and over again, year after year, day after day the chilling truth that Black Lives don’t matter, that anti- Black culture has relegated us to sub-human status.

I and my office are committed to working to continue to address these injustices, to root out systemic racism and to ensuring justice and equity. A few examples: as I discussed in a prior newsletter, I sent a letter to the Alameda County Sheriff and Chief Probation Officer and other authorities supporting Public Defender Brendon Woods’ call to release individuals detained or held in Alameda County facilities to protect them from the spread of COVID-19. The City Council also unanimously passed a resolution that I co-sponsored endorsing and supporting the Public Defender’s urgent call. We are continuing to prosecute our lawsuit against Wells Fargo to end the bank’s racially discriminatory mortgage lending practices against African American and Latino borrowers. I recently released an FAQ that provides guidance on civil rights protections during the COVID-19 crisis. As you know, the crisis has disproportionately taken the lives of African Americans and Latinx people, and in part due to hate mongering by the occupant of the White House we have seen an increase in harassment and discrimination against Asian and disabled people. And my office has fought against the current federal administration’s racist policies, by filing and joining lawsuits and filing amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs.  

We can change the course of history; we know this because our ancestors already have achieved what appeared to be impossible. We can make sure that Black Lives Matter by protesting and changing laws and accepting that the foundation of this country was built on genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. These original sins haunt us to this day. We have unfinished business. We can’t give up; we can’t say we are too tired. We have to keep on pushin’. 
Thanks to each of you for soldiering on in the midst of these tumultuous times; for your goodwill and your belief in a better world that values each of us, and also a world, in my view, that provides us free health care, living wages, a free education, housing, and justice and equity. 

Best wishes for your health, safety and a resilient spirit. 

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the work we are doing on behalf of the City of Oakland.

In solidarity.

Barbara J. Parker
Oakland City Attorney
Phone (510) 238-3601| Email [email protected] | Home www.oaklandcityattorney.com