Judge: Elaine W. Mandel, Case: 23SMCV05646, Date: 2024-06-11 Tentative Ruling

Case Number: 23SMCV05646    Hearing Date: June 11, 2024    Dept: P

Tentative Ruling

Robinson, et al. v. Stanton, et al., Case No. 23SMCV05646

Hearing date June 11, 2024

Defendants Stanton and Kenneth L. Stanton as Trustee of the Kenneth L. Stanton Trust’s (1) Demurrer and (2) Motion to Strike

Defendants Stanton and Traivette’s (1) Demurrer and (2) Motion to Strike

 

Plaintiff tenants sue defendant landlords, alleging habitability issues, including mold, termites and a non-functioning heating system. Plaintiffs allege despite repeated requests for repairs, defendants did not address the requests until plaintiffs filed complaints with governmental authorities. Further, plaintiffs allege defendants violated their privacy, harassing them, taking photos of intimate areas of the home without consent, entering the property without legitimate basis, repeatedly demanding plaintiffs vacate without basis, and making false statements about plaintiffs to unlawfully compel plaintiffs to vacate.

 

Plaintiffs alleged: (1) breach of contract, (2) breach of warranty of habitability, (3) breach of covenant of quiet enjoyment, (4) negligence, (5) wrongful eviction, (6) retaliatory eviction-common law, (7) violation of Cal. Civ. Code §1940.2, and (8) violation of Santa Monica Municipal Code §4.56.020

 

Defendant Kenneth L. Stanton, as an individual and as trustee of the Kenneth L. Stanton Trust, demurs, arguing uncertainty and failure to state a claim, and moves to strike punitive damages and attorney’s fees requests. Defendants Stanton and Traivette file substantially identical motions. The court addresses them collectively.

 

 

In reviewing the legal sufficiency of a complaint against a demurrer, a court will treat the demurrer as admitting all material facts properly pleaded. Blank v. Kirwan (1985) 39 Cal.3d 311, 318 (Blank); C & H Foods Co. v. Hartford Ins. Co. (1984) 163 Cal.App.3d 1055, 1062. A “demurrer lies only for defects appearing on the face of the complaint[.]” Stevens v. Superior Court (1999) 75 Cal.App.4th 594, 601. For purposes of ruling on a demurrer, the complaint must be construed liberally by drawing reasonable inferences from the facts pleaded. Wilner v. Sunset Life Ins. Co. (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 952, 958.

 

A special demurrer for uncertainty is appropriate where the pleading is so poorly written that defendant cannot reasonably respond.¿Code Civ. Proc. §430.10(f); Khoury v. Maly’s of California, Inc. (1993) 14 Cal.App.4th 612, 616 (Khoury). A demurrer for uncertainty is a disfavored ground for sustaining a demurrer. Id.

 

Second Cause of Action – Breach of Warranty of Habitability

The implied warranty of habitability is implied in all leases by law. Stoiber v. Honeychuck (1980) 101 Cal.App.3d 903, 913-914. The implied warranty of habitability requires, “existence of a material defective condition affecting the premise[’s] habitability, notice to the landlord of the condition within a reasonable time after the tenant’s discovery of the condition, the landlord was given a reasonable time to correct the deficiency, and resulting damages.” Erlach v. Sierra Asset Servicing, LLC (2012) 226 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1297.

 

Plaintiffs allege defendants were on notice of the material defective conditions and had a reasonable time to correct the deficiency and make repairs. Plaintiffs allege existence of a lease (Compl. ¶13) and material defective conditions in the form of termites, mold, broken window seals, neglect, and no operable heating system other than a fireplace. Compl. ¶15. Plaintiffs alleged they “made repeated requests for repairs to Defendants” “[d]uring [their] tenancy at the Property,” “which were not address[ed] until Plaintiffs filed complaints with governmental authorities.” Compl. ¶17. The allegations are sufficient to state a cause of action for the breach of the implied warranty of habitability. OVERRULED.

 

Third Cause of Action – Breach of Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment

Cal. Civ. Code §1927 provides in every lease agreement landlords impliedly covenant the right to quiet enjoyment. Spinks v. Equity Residential Briarwood Apartments (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 1004, 1034. This covenant prevents the landlord from any “action which interrupts the tenant’s beneficial enjoyment.” Id.

 

Plaintiffs allege defendants interfered with their quiet enjoyment, violated their privacy, harassed them, took photos of the home without consent, entered the property, demanded plaintiffs vacate, and made false statements about plaintiffs in order to compel plaintiffs to vacate. Compl. ¶ 16. This pattern of harassment and intimidation is alleged to have breached the right to quiet enjoyment.

 

Plaintiffs allege failure “to repair unsafe, unsanitary and uninhabitable conditions at the Property and failing to maintain the Property in a habitable condition.” Compl. ¶ 34. These allegations do not indicate notice of the conditions and a reasonable time to cure. Nevertheless, defendants’ argument fails because the complaint also alleges a pattern of harassment, violation of privacy, and other actions which interfered with plaintiffs’ right to quiet enjoyment. OVERRULED.

 

Fifth Cause of Action – Wrongful Eviction

Defendants argue the wrongful eviction cause of action is governed by Civ. Code §1940.2; plaintiffs do not dispute this in their opposition. This cause of action is duplicative of the seventh cause of action for violation of Civ. Code §1940.2. SUSTAINED WITHOUT LEAVE TO AMEND.

 

Sixth Cause of Action – Retaliatory Eviction-Common Law

Cal. Civ. Code §1942.5(a) provides a lessor may not cause a lessee to quit voluntarily, increase rent, decrease any services, or recover possession of a dwelling within 180 days after a lessee makes an oral complaint to the lessor regarding tenantability, among other things. “[T]enants who are the victims of retaliatory conduct by their landlords have complementary rights of action both in the common law and under the statutory scheme adopted by the Legislature.” Rich v. Schwab (1998) 63 Cal.App.4th 803, 811.

 

A tenant is protected for making written or oral tenantability complaints to a landlord or lessor about a dwelling. Civ. Code §1942.5(a)(1); Kemp v. Schultz (1981) 121 Cal.App.3d Supp. 13, 18 [“a tenant, who is not in default in the payment of rent, may invoke the defense of retaliatory eviction, upon proof that he has made an oral complaint to the landlord regarding the tenantability of the premises,” even where no complaint was made to a governmental entity].

 

The complaint alleges “[w]ithin the one-year period preceding the filing of this action, Defendants committed the acts alleged herein against Plaintiffs with the intent to retaliate against Plaintiffs for exercising their rights under the law, including but not limited to, requesting, and complaining that Defendants remedy the defective conditions at the Property as described herein, in violation of the common law barring retaliatory eviction.” Compl. ¶ 16.

 

However, the complaint does not allege plaintiffs were not in default of payment of rent. Additionally, the complaint does not allege defendants (1) caused plaintiffs to involuntarily quit the premises, (2) increased rent, or (3) decreased services within 180 days of plaintiffs’ complaint to defendants about the tenantability or defective conditions, among other things. The complaint fails to state facts sufficient to support a cause of action for retaliatory eviction. SUSTAINED WITH LEAVE TO AMEND.

 

Seventh Cause of Action - Violation of California Civil Code §1940.2

Cal. Civ. Code §1940.2 makes it unlawful for a landlord to do any of the following for the purpose of influencing a tenant to vacate a dwelling: … (3) Use, or threaten to use, force, willful threats, or menacing conduct constituting a course of conduct that interferes with the tenant’s quiet enjoyment of the premises….”

 

The complaint alleges a pattern of harassment, violation of privacy, and other actions which interrupted plaintiffs’ right to quiet enjoyment. The complaint alleges as a result of defendants’ actions and conditions of the property, plaintiffs “moved from” the Property on April 24, 2023. Compl. ¶18. Plaintiffs allege how defendants’ alleged conduct influenced them to vacate or created an apprehension of harm. OVERRULED.

 

Eighth Cause of Action – Violation of Santa Monica Municipal Code §4.56.020

Santa Monica Municipal Code section 4.56.020 prohibits a landlord from taking actions—such as terminating or failing to provide housing services, failing to perform repairs, or failing to exercise due diligence in completing repairs, abusing the tenant with offensive words, threatening physical harm by word or gesture, interfering with a tenant’s right to privacy, including entering or photographing beyond the scope of lawful entry or inspection—in bad faith with respect to property used as a rental housing unit under a rental agreement. Santa Monica Mun. Code §4.56.020.

 

The complaint alleges defendants violated the Municipal Code by failing to repair the unit, including the heating, failing to waterproof, resulting in mold, failing to repair, invading plaintiffs’ right to privacy, posting eviction notices to quit without basis and verbally accosting plaintiffs. Compl. ¶66. These allegations, taken as true, allege violation of the SMMC. OVERRULED.

 

Motion to Strike Punitive Damages & Attorney’s Fees

Punitive Damages 

To support a prayer for punitive damages, the complaint must allege “oppression, fraud, or malice.” Cyrus v. Haveson (1976) 65 Cal.App.3d 306, 316-17.

 

“Malice means conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff or despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.” Civ. Code §3294. “Despicable conduct’ is conduct which is so vile, base, contemptible, miserable, wretched or loathsome that it would be looked down upon and despised by ordinary decent people.” Mock v. Michigan Millers Mutual Ins. Co. (1992) 4 Cal.App.4th 306, 331.

 

The allegations, specifically alleged recording of and verbally accosting plaintiffs, sufficiently allege malice within the meaning of Civil Code section 3294. DENIED.

 

Because the demurrer has been sustained with leave to amend as to the sixth cause of action and sustained without leave to amend as to the fifth cause of action, a motion to strike punitive damages in those causes of action is MOOT.

 

Attorneys’ Fees 

Defendants move to strike the prayer for attorneys’ fees. Santa Monica Mun. Code §4.56.040(d), alleged in the eighth cause of action, provides a statutory basis for recovery of attorneys’ fees. DENIED. Attorney’s fees are not available as to the other causes of action.