Obsessive Defense Thwarts S.F. Eviction

In the animal kingdom of evictions, there are species that tenant lawyers refer to as hoarding and cluttering cases. And like most eviction cases, they go to trial only rarely.

So Joel Liberson and Jason Wolford, two former Gordon & Rees lawyers who started their own civil law firm about a year ago, were treading on unfamiliar ground recently when they went to trial for a pro bono client with a messy apartment — and won, by showing she suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. But making that defense work in a time-crunched eviction case was no easy trick.

Judging by the cases that the local Eviction Defense Collaborative sees, the number of hoarding and cluttering cases in San Francisco ebbs and flows every year, and has recently hit a swell. Executive Director Miguel Wooding counted 29 of them involving EDC clients between July 2005 and June 2006, the highest number he’s seen in the last five years. People caught up in them tend to be risk-averse about going to trial, he added. “In eviction cases the resources available to help folks go to trial are not huge. And the risks involved in going to trial and losing your home are fairly substantial.”

So the partners at Liberson & Wolford found out.

Trophy Properties tried to evict their client, Diana Taylor, for allowing unsanitary or dangerous conditions to persist in her apartment, where she’d lived for more than 30 years. While Taylor’s attorneys don’t dispute that her place was a mess, they came to argue that she couldn’t help it because she had OCD.

After a weeklong trial last month, a superior court jury saw things their way — jurors concluded Taylor had created a nuisance, but also found that she suffered from a disability and her landlord had not offered her a reasonable accommodation for it as required by law. But that was only after Liberson and Wolford had spent months — going to at least three different health clinics — trying to track down a psychiatrist for their low-income client who had the time to both treat her and give a credible diagnosis.

“In a normal case, you have experts lined up for certain things,” said Wolford, who tried the case. “Because a credible doctor’s not going to see a person once and say, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s got obsessive-compulsive disorder’ … trying to fit that longer process into the shorter process of an unlawful detainer case is a challenge.”

With the superior court case won, they’ve since turned the tables by filing a federal lawsuit accusing the landlord of violating the federal Fair Housing Act in Taylor’s situation, said Liberson, who left his old firm as an appellate partner. He added, “It’s essentially the analogue of what happened in state court.”

Pam Smith



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