January 13, 2016

PLF holding Palo Alto's feet to the fire

By Larry G. Salzman Senior Attorney

Standing up to the government in defense of property rights can be a daunting task. Of course, good public interest law requires clients with courage, sophisticated lawyering, and donors to stand with us. It often also takes a surprising amount of patience and persistence. That’s because when you sue the government, the bureaucrats’ response is most often not to stand and defend what they’ve done—it’s to try to run away.

When that happens, you must be prepared to fight for months (sometimes years) defending your right just to hold the government to account in court for what it’s done.

Last November PLF joined with the Jisser family, which has owned and operated the Buena Vista mobilehome park in Palo Alto for three decades. The family’s patriarch, Tim Jisser, is retiring and so the family wants to close their park and put the land to another use. But to close a mobilehome park in Palo Alto you need a permit.  And the City of Palo Alto will only grant that permit to the Jissers if they pay their tenants roughly $8 million. The City says the money is needed so that the tenants can get expensive alternative housing in the area; in effect, the City is holding the Jissers uniquely responsible for solving the city’s severe housing affordability problem. That’s not just wrong, it’s unconstitutional.

No one in America should be forced to run a business they simply want to close. So, PLF and the Jissers brought a constitutional case in federal court to defend their right to take back their property free of the unconstitutional condition.

Instead of answering the Jissers’ complaint, however, the City has done what governments typically do: it’s trying to avoid judgment by asking the court to toss out the case. The City’s motion to dismiss doesn’t deny that the city is commanding a payment of $8 million, or that it won’t grant the Jissers a permit unless they pay it. It just says the case shouldn’t be heard by a judge yet; or that it’s too late to hear it; or that it should be heard by a state judge instead of a federal judge. In short, the city has said anything and everything it can say in an attempted retreat from actually defending what it is in fact doing to the Jissers.

Today PLF filed its response demonstrating that the “the Jissers have stated viable claims for violations of their constitutional rights and are entitled to prove them at summary judgment or at trial.” You can read all it about, here. All we ask is that the courthouse doors remain open for people, like the Jissers, to make their case when the government wrongfully takes their property.

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Jisser v. City of Palo Alto, California

The Jisser family owns the last mobile home park in super-expensive Palo Alto, California. They wanted to retire, leave the business entirely and close down the park, but the city demanded that the Jissers pay $8 million to the tenants to obtain the required permit. Representing the Jissers, PLF sued on the ground that the city’s demand was nothing more than extortion prohibited by the Fifth Amendment. A federal district court judge dismissed the case because he erroneously believed that the Jissers had to pursue state court remedies first. While the appeal was pending, the city agreed to give up the fight and purchase the mobile home park itself. The appeal is stayed pending resolution of the settlement.

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