In Brief – Four elderly tenants brought this case to court after the Oakland Housing Authority (“OHA”) commenced detainer actions against the tenants for alleged violations of a lease provision obligating the tenants to “assure that the tenant, any member of the household, or another person under the tenant’s control, shall not engage in . . . drug-related criminal activity on or near the premises.” On March 12, 1999, after the case was appealed, the Brennan Center filed an amicus brief on the tenants’ behalf.
Procedural History – The tenants filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, arguing that, contrary to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (“HUD”) interpretation, the U.S. Public Health and Welfare Code (42 U.S.C. S 1437d (1)(6)) does not authorize the eviction of otherwise innocent tenants solely because household members or guests were involved in drug activity, whether or not the tenant knew or should have known of the activity or tried to prevent the activity. The District Court found the tenants’ arguments to be compelling and issued a preliminary injunction, enjoining OHA from terminating the tenants’ leases. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling, finding that HUD’s interpretation of the statute was correct, and that the statute was constitutional.
Question Presented – The Brennan Center’s amicus brief, written on the tenants’ behalf, argues that evicting tenants based on any lease violation, and without regard to circumstance, conflicts with Congress’ intent in its creation of the U.S. Public Health and Welfare Code. The amicus does not question the appellate court’s application of law to the instant case; rather, it contends that the appellate court based its decision on an erroneous interpretation of the statute.
In Detail – OHA commenced separate detainer actions against four tenants – Pearlie Rucker, Willie Lee, Barbara Hill, and Herman Walker. Pearlie Rucker was a sixty-three year old woman who had lived in public housing since 1985 with her mentally disabled daughter, her two grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter. OHA sought to evict Mrs. Rucker because her mentally disabled daughter was found in possession of cocaine three blocks from the apartment. Willie Lee, seventy-one, and Barbara Hill, sixty-three, had been public housing residents for twenty-five and thirty years respectively. They were evicted because their grandsons were found smoking marijuana together in the parking lot of their apartment complex; neither tenant had prior knowledge of illegal drug activity by their grandsons. Herman Walker, a disabled seventy-five year old man, had lived in public housing for ten years. Because he was incapable of living independently, he required an in-home caregiver, but several times, his caregiver and two guests were found in possession of cocaine in Walker’s apartment.
In response to OHA’s actions, the tenants filed suit in District Court, arguing that, contrary to HUD’s interpretation, the Public Health and Welfare Code does not authorize the eviction of innocent tenants. The tenants also argued that if the statute does not authorize such evictions, then the statute is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction enjoining what they considered to be unlawful detainer actions against them. The District Court found that the balance of hardships tipped decisively in the tenants’ favor and enjoined OHA from terminating the leases of the tenants pursuant to a “drug-related criminal activity” section of the tenants’ leases.
On appeal, a panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling. The appellate court found that HUD’s interpretation of the Public Health and Welfare Code was consistent with the statute, and that the statute, so interpreted, was constitutional. According to HUD, “The tenant should not be excused from contractual responsibility by arguing that the tenant did not know, could not foresee, or could not control behavior by other occupants of the unit.” The appellate court determined that the tenants could be legally evicted for any drug use by household members or guests near the apartment premises.
In an amicus filed in support of upholding the preliminary injunction, the Brennan Center argued that Congress, in constructing the relevant sections of the Public Health and Welfare Code, spoke on the precise question at issue in this case. Congress made clear that its intention was to ensure that tenancies were not terminated except for “serious or repeated violation of the terms or conditions of the lease or for other good cause,” understanding that low-income tenants face great adversity when evicted. The amicus brief argued that, by failing to take Congress intent into account, the Ninth Circuit relied on erroneous legal premises in overturning the lower court’s decision. The Ninth Circuit’s decision succeeded only at further diminishing vulnerable tenants’ rights.