SAN FRANCISCO – A state appeals court recently affirmed a lower court jury's verdict in a tenant harassment lawsuit filed by residents of an upscale San Francisco apartment complex over the use of a courtyard.
In its 29-page opinion issued Dec. 28, a California 1st District Court of Appeal three-judge panel affirmed a San Francisco Superior Court jury's 2015 verdict that included a trebled award to the plaintiffs. The Superior Court jury also found the apartment complex's owner and management had not been so "flagrant or egregious" to warrant an injunction to return the courtyard to its state before its use had been restricted, according to the Appeal Court's opinion.
"Indeed, on appeal plaintiffs do not assert that the trial court abused its discretion in denying large portions of its request for injunctive relief," the opinion said. "The trial court recognized that plaintiffs received a substantial award of noneconomic damages, punitive damages, and attorney fees, as well as ongoing monthly rent reductions for the plaintiffs. On this record, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion."
Appeal Court Justice Marla J. Miller wrote the opinion in which Justice J. Anthony Kline and Justice Therese M. Stewart concurred.
The case stems from a September 2012 building management decision at Casa Madrona to restrict its courtyard to entry and exiting, according to the background portion of the Appeal Court's opinion. Three Casa Madrona tenants, Alan Bayer and Heather Borlase, who are married, and "their some-time babysitter" Heather Grosz, filed suit in September 2013 on allegations of familial and associational discrimination, retaliation and tenant harassment, the opinion said.
"The underlying theory was that the building manager had an animus against children and did not want them playing in the courtyard," the opinion said.
Defendants in the case include Frederick Morse, Morse Family Trust of Oakland and Dennis Doyle of San Francisco.
In August 2015, a San Francisco Superior Court jury handed down a $370,000 housing discrimination judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, in addition to attorney's fees and costs. The Superior Court jury awarded $50,000 each to Bayer and Borlase for discrimination, retaliation and tenant harassment and found defendants had retaliated against and harassed the couple and handed down a trebled emotional distress award of about $300,000.
All parties appealed. The defendants argued the Superior Court had been wrong to deny their motions for a new trail and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the evidence had been insufficient and the damages impermissibly trebled. Defendants also claimed the plaintiffs were not the prevailing parties who shouldn't receive attorney fees and costs and that jury's award violated their due process rights in light of the "relatively minor transgressions" alleged.
In their cross appeal, the plaintiffs argued the trial court had been wrong to not require defendants to, among other things, restore the courtyard to the way it was before September 2012.
The Appeals Court found the Superior Court was not wrong when it denied motions for a new trial or for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, nor in its decision to treble damages. The Superior Court's logic had been "unassailable" and that the defense "apparently" did not object a special verdict form used in its decision, a form that "is a model of clarity, delineating each cause of action, each plaintiff, and each defendant’s potential liability," the opinion said.
"The end result is a completed verdict form that made crystal clear the jury’s intent," the opinion said. "There is no basis for defendants' claims that the trial court impermissibly speculated in awarding treble damages."
The Superior Court also had not been wrong in finding plaintiffs to be prevailing and awarding attorney fees and costs, according to the opinion.
"It is apparent that the trial court considered the overall case, the jury verdicts and the substance of the jury's findings, as well as its own rulings on matters left to it to decide," the opinion said. "Notably, in the trial court as well as on appeal, defendants' assertion that the equitable relief was the 'most important part' of plaintiffs' prayer for relief has no citation to the record."