The Oakland City Attorney Office: Law in Service of the Public Part III
Part of the Get to Know Your Local Community Organization Series
The Litigation Division advocates for the City’s interests in claims and lawsuits that are filed against or on behalf of the City, its officers, employees and agencies in the state and federal trial and appellate courts. Examples include high value personal injury cases, complex civil rights actions, personnel disputes, eminent domain actions, breach of contract, challenges to constitutionality of Oakland’s laws, policies and procedures and inverse condemnation cases. Litigators take an aggressive and strategic approach to manage liability and limit the City’s financial exposure.
In defending the City, the Litigation Division works on both claims and lawsuits filed against the City. Claims fall into four categories: municipal infrastructure (streets, sewers and sidewalks), police matters (conduct, towing, jail and property damage), city vehicle accidents and “other.” The Office works on roughly 500 claims per year, and only three percent of these claims turn into lawsuits.
In FY 2014-15, plaintiffs filed 177 lawsuits against the City of Oakland. When lawsuits are filed, litigators work aggressively and strategically to protect taxpayer resources, reduce litigation costs and limit potential exposure by filing motions to dismiss defendants and causes of action, thereby narrowing the scope of defense. When liability is clear, the Litigation Division seeks to resolve the matter early to limit the cost to taxpayers.
Affirmative Litigation, Innovation & Enforcement Division
The newly formed Affirmative Litigation, Innovation & Enforcement Division includes affirmative litigation, community lawyering, civil rights enforcement, code enforcement, general public safety and the Neighborhood Law Corps (“NLC”), which initiates legal proceedings to address public nuisance/quality of life issues in Oakland’s neighborhoods.
This Division was created in August of 2016 as part of a major restructuring to address health and well-being issues for the residents of Oakland. The NLC is an award-winning program that in recent years has focused on preventing illegal dumping, suing abusive landlords who violate the rights of Oakland tenants and shutting down hotels, massage parlors and other businesses that collude in human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors.
In addition to the NLC, the division includes two units: a General Code Enforcement and Public Safety Unit and a Community Lawyering and Civil Rights Enforcement Unit that will focus on proactive lawsuits and other actions to protect and advance the rights and interests of Oakland residents with a goal of economic, environmental and social justice.
Although a “new” Division, Oakland residents have already felt the impact of the work being done. The Division has sued an international hotel chain and its affiliate in Oakland for systematically violating state labor laws and Oakland’s minimum wage ordinance by refusing to pay overtime, failing to provide sick leave and engaging in other illegal conduct towards employees.
The housing crunch has clearly become a critical issue in Oakland and is having a dramatic impact on the lives of many low-income Oakland residents, including some of the most vulnerable persons in our community.
“Skyrocketing rents and housing costs have created a housing crisis in Oakland,” City Attorney Parker said. “This crisis has been ongoing for some time and threatens the very fabric of the Oakland that we love – our great diversity based on race, age, sexual orientation, incomes and professions. In the midst of the housing crisis, renters are especially vulnerable. Too many families are being priced out of Oakland, in more and more cases leading to homelessness.”
In a case of tenant abuse, the Division secured an injunction against the owners of a Fruitvale area apartment building where for years, tenants have complained that they had no heat, no working smoke detectors, bedbug and cockroach infestations, faulty electrical wiring and other habitability problems, including a fire in July 2016 that caused extensive damage to several units.
In another example of tenant protection, two lawsuits were recently filed to protect tenants from abusive and unlawful actions by landlords. The lawsuits filed this month reflect the City’s commitment to enforcing Oakland’s 2014 Tenant Protection Ordinance (“TPO”). The City Attorney filed the City’s first lawsuit under the TPO in 2015 to improve deplorable and inhumane conditions at the Empyrean Towers, a more than 90-unit building located at 13th and Webster streets in downtown Oakland.
A lawsuit filed recently charges the owners of a building on 69th Avenue with waging a campaign of harassment to unlawfully remove each of the building’s four tenants. After buying the building in 2015, the owner misappropriated City of Oakland stationery in an apparent attempt to mislead tenants and filed a series of retaliatory lawsuits against one tenant who refused to move out. Tenants have also reported that the owner’s partner threatened them with physical harm. The City’s lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the owners from continuing harassment and abuse of tenants.
Similarly, the City Attorney, Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, and civil and housing rights law firm Sundeen, Salinas and Pyle filed another Tenant Protection Ordinance lawsuit against the owners of a SRO building on 8th Street. The lawsuit charges the owners with making living conditions unbearable in an effort to force tenants out so they can renovate the building and charge higher rents.
Other lawsuits that the Division is working on that are not housing related include a lawsuit against Monsanto seeking damages related to polychlorinated biphenylPCB) contamination in Oakland’s storm water and a lawsuit against Wells Fargo for racially and predatory mortgage lending practices against African American and Hispanic borrowers.
This is only a brief overview of some of the activities that the Oakland City Attorney is involved in. You can also visit their website to learn more about the office at www.oaklandcityattorney.org.
Originally published in the ACBA Trial Practice Section’s Summer 2017 Newsletter, this article was written by James Treggiari, Executive Director of the Legal Assistance for Seniors, located in Oakland. Read Part I, and Part II here and keep an eye out for Part IV in this series coming soon.