SEATTLE’S JUST CAUSE EVICTION ORDINANCE: A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH BY LANDLORDS

If you are a long term hold investor who owns rental property in the City of Seattle, you may come into situations that are affected by Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance. Two recent court cases discuss this law and this month’s column will consider the Supreme Court’s decision. Next month I will cover the Court of Appeals case which involved different parties.

Seattle landlords are subject both to the state Residential Landlord Tenant Act and to the Seattle Just Cause Eviction ordinance. The latter law as construed by the Supreme Court is intended to prevent “arbitrary evictions” and provides more protection to tenants than does the state law. Key to the Just Cause Eviction ordinance is the prohibition on evictions unless one or more of a list of specific “just causes” for the eviction exists. The court indicated that the unlawful detainer law as promulgated by the state legislature was intended to provide a procedure for a landlord to regain possession of property that had been rented to a tenant at the end of the tenancy. Under the unlawful detainer law a landlord who is trying to regain possession of the property must ask the court for a hearing called a show cause hearing at which a judicial officer will take evidence on the complaint and answer and determine if any basis exists to deny the landlord possession of the property.

In the recent case, the landlord notified tenants that he intended to occupy the unit himself or provide it as a dwelling for family members, which is a recognized “just cause” for eviction under the Seattle ordinance. The landlord identified the family members as his parents.

Before the time set in the notice, the landlord’s father passed away and the landlord amended the notice to state that either he or his mother would occupy the premises. The tenants had a belief based on prior disputes with the landlord that the statement in the notice was untrue and only a pretext for an unjust eviction.

Using social media and the internet, the tenants researched the landlord’s mother and learned that she owned a home in Colorado which was not listed for sale or rent and she taught at a Colorado center a course which had not been cancelled and she volunteered at a Colorado hospital and had not informed the hospital that she would be leaving. Armed with this information the tenants complained to the city, in response to which the landlord executed the “certification under penalty of perjury” called for in the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance that he intended to carry out the actions described in the notice. Based on the certification, the Superior Court cancelled the trial and granted possession to the landlord. The tenants appealed arguing that the “show cause” hearing was their only chance to challenge the truthfulness of the landlord’s “penalty of perjury” certification before the eviction. The Just Cause Eviction Ordinance gives a tenant a claim for statutory damages and attorney’s fees after an eviction if the landlord fails to carry out the action stated in the notice that was the basis of the eviction but until now there has been no way for a tenant to challenge the truthfulness of such a notice during the eviction process.

The Supreme Court decided that a tenant in an unlawful detainer case under the Seattle Just Cause Eviction Ordinance has the statutory right in the show cause hearing to rebut a landlord’s certification as to the truthfulness of the notice that just cause for the eviction exists. Thus a trial in such a situation must be conducted to allow the court to evaluate the competing evidence and determine whether the just cause contemplated by the ordinance actually exists. Such a trial is necessarily a time consuming and expensive process.

In today’s rental market in Seattle, it may become more common to see tenants resisting the terminations of their tenancies. The Just Cause Eviction Ordinance has given tenants potent weapons for use in such resistance.

The above is intended for education and should not be considered legal advice.

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