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Lawsuit filed against L.A. County courts over changes for eviction cases

March 13, 2013 | 10:13 pm

Saying that a Los Angeles County Superior Court plan to reduce the number of courts handling landlord disputes "shuts the courthouse doors on many of the county's most vulnerable residents," several legal aid organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the court system and the state.

In the 21-page filing, the organizations said the reduction in the number of courthouses hearing such cases from 26 to five throughout the county will create difficulties for low-income tenants and people with disabilities fighting eviction.

Some people will have to travel up to 32 miles to litigate their cases, court officials have said. The trips "to the courthouse for these tenants will require numerous transfers and travel to unfamiliar areas and will be prohibitively difficult and expensive," the lawsuit states.

The plan to send eviction cases, known as unlawful detainers, to designated "hub" courthouses is scheduled to begin Monday.

The cases will be heard only in Pasadena, Long Beach, Santa Monica, the Antelope Valley Courthouse in Lancaster and the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.

The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in downtown Los Angeles, seeks to halt the plan and demands a jury trial.

Attorneys with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Disability Rights Legal Center and Western Center on Law & Poverty filed the suit on behalf of several plaintiffs, including two disabled people facing eviction.

The court's plan comes as the system works to close a $56-million-to-$85-million budget shortfall by the beginning of the fiscal year July 1, said Mary Hearn, a court spokeswoman.

Assigning eviction cases to certain courts is part of an overall cost-cutting plan that includes the closure of 10 regional courthouses.

In the last fiscal year, 67,182 eviction lawsuits were filed in Los Angeles County courts, Hearn said.

In the Van Nuys court, more than 8,000 unlawful detainer cases were filed in 2011, according to records. Under the court's plan, those cases -- as well as those from several other courthouses -- would be moved to the Santa Monica courthouse, which had about 4,600 unlawful detainer cases filed in 2011.

Added travel time is of particular concern in eviction cases because the courts move quickly, said Neal Dudovitz, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.

Under California law, tenants in most cases have five days to file a written response to the lawsuit brought by their landlords. If the person does not file a response within that time frame, the court rules in favor of the landlord.

The court also enters a judgment in the landlord's favor if the tenant does not appear in court. Judges typically hear and decide cases within 20 days after the landlord or tenant requests that the case go to trial.

In a letter to Presiding Judge David S. Wesley, who is named in the lawsuit, State Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills) called the court's plan "simply unacceptable."

“Your proposed plan will impose insurmountable conditions on low-income renters needing to defend themselves in unlawful detainer complaints and undeniably push more working families into the chasm of homeless,” wrote Blumenfield, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee. 

Court officials have said years of budget cuts by the state have left no option but to reduce services and lay off workers. The L.A. County court system already has laid off hundreds of employees and left more positions unfilled.

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-- Hailey Branson-Potts

twitter.com/haileybranson

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