The City of Oakland has a pressing need for rental housing, yet, as detailed in a 2011 Alameda County Grand Jury report, the city has a long shameful history of mistreating rental property owners, creating an “atmosphere of hostility and intimidation.” State law requires cities to provide an independent hearing authority for building code violations, either a separate appeals board or the city council. Oakland instead assigns appeals to an appointee of the Building Services Division – the very agency that imposes the fines.
Thomas Lippman, a rental property owner in Oakland for almost 20 years, was fined more than $12,000 and made subject to a lien on his property for several alleged building code violations even though he quickly corrected all the undisputed problems such as tenant-caused damage to doors, tiles, and a soap dish. Lippman challenged the citations, but Oakland only allowed Lippman’s appeal to be heard by an officer appointed by the very same agency imposing the fees. Adding insult to injury, the officer never allowed Lippman an opportunity to present his defense. Instead, she blindly accepted the agency’s assertion that the fees were proper.
Lippman turned to the state courts to overturn this miscarriage of justice. However, the trial court judge misconstrued the state law requiring an independent appeals process and affirmed the Building Services’ officer’s decision even while acknowledging that Lippman was never given an opportunity to defend himself. PLF took over the case on appeal. California’s First District Court of Appeals issued a decision vindicating the basic girths of property owners. Thanks to this victory, property owners in Oakland and throughout the state will be entitled to a fundamentally fair process before the government takes tens of thousands of dollars from them.