Court Set to Rule Against Jose Morales in Ellis Eviction

by Paul Hogarth, 2007-09-20

In a ruling that appears to defy the California Supreme Court, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay is likely to grant judgment today against tenant Jose Morales and deny the 78-year old activist a jury trial. The judge found the landlord’s statement that he was going out of the rental housing business “conclusive” as a matter of law, despite the landlord giving multiple versions of his plans for the property. The judge spent three days hearing legal arguments to avoid what would otherwise have been a two-day jury trial heard by Morales’ peers. Many observers felt that a jury would disbelieve a landlord who has tried numerous strategies to evict the 42-year resident, but the court appears to be making sure a jury never gets the chance to keep Morales in his longtime home.

The ruling denying Jose Morales a jury trial and entering judgment against him shocked even those familiar with the pro-landlord agenda of many San Francisco judges. Morales’ Ellis eviction case has been very high profile, the landlord’s good faith was clearly in doubt, and a winning jury verdict was a distinct possibility.

But unless an appellate court reverses Judge Quidacahy’s ruling, we will never know whether a jury would have ruled on the tenant activist’s behalf. That’s because the court took it upon itself to resolve all factual disputes, denying Morales what should have been a constitutional right to a jury trial in an unlawful detainer action.

For 15 years, Jose Morales has been fighting hard to save his home of 42 years – and as he walked out of the courthouse on a walker, it was clear that the struggle has taken a physical, emotional and psychological toll on him. “I’m here to fight for affordable housing,” said Morales defiantly. “This landlord has been very abusive to me. I am crippled. I have to take pills every six hours.”

A dozen housing and senior activists rallied for Jose in front of the courthouse yesterday – anxiously awaiting the Judge’s ruling. “Jose is symbolic to what’s happening all over San Francisco,” said Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union. “Seniors and tenants who are disabled are being kicked out of the City – so real estate speculators can make a lot of money by selling condos.” According to a survey by the Tenants Union, 83% of tenants who get evicted end up moving out of San Francisco.

There were four issues at trial that if Quidachay had ruled favorably for Morales on any one would have taken the case to a jury: (a) whether the landlord put the wrong address on the eviction notice, (b) whether the landlord misidentified the amount of rent Jose pays, (c) whether the landlord acted in good faith to “go out of the rental business,” and (d) if the landlord acted in retaliation to Jose’s 15 years of fighting to save his home.

The first two were quickly dismissed by Judge Quidachay as immaterial, although the law requires eviction notices to be precise – and the amount of rent is relevant to how much the landlord could charge if he re-rents the unit in the future. And while there was ample evidence that the landlord had retaliated against Morales, the Supreme Court under Drouet requires that a tenant must first disprove the landlord’s “good-faith” intent to go out of business.

But Judge Quidachay wouldn't even let the “good-faith” question go to a jury. Although the landlord had given conflicting information about what he planned to do with the property – including at a deposition where he said he hoped to have it rented out – the Judge took the landlord’s statement in court that he wanted to go out of business as “conclusive evidence.” Therefore, judgment was entered against Morales.

“Jose’s fight is part of a struggle that has been going on for years,” said Miriam Zamora, a Spanish-speaking tenant in the Mission who spoke through an interpreter. “What does his eviction mean about our future? This law [the Ellis Act] is criminal. This eviction is about revenge – revenge by the landlord against Jose who has struggled to save his house for many years.”

Jose’s eviction comes at a time when San Francisco rents are rising at an alarming rate, and right-wing extremists are pushing a statewide proposition to end rent control. “We are being driven out of the City,” said Barbara Blong of Senior Action Network. “And Jose is only one example. What are we going to do without rent control?”

Just last Saturday, Jose was inducted in the San Francisco Tenants Union “Hall of Fame” – for his decades of advocacy for low-income tenants. It would be bitterly ironic if he were to leave the City because of one outrageous ruling. For now, his only remedy is the Court of Appeals.

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