Judges Rule Tenants May Resolve Disputes Through Rent Boards

Times Staff Writer

Court-shy Santa Monica tenants who believe their rents exceed rent control limits can properly have their grievances decided by the city's Rent Control Board, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.

A section of Santa Monica's 1979 rent control law providing for board hearings and action on such complaints had been declared unconstitutional by Superior Court Judge Lawrence J. Rittenband, who said it wrongly allowed the board to assume judicial powers.

The Santa Monica judge had permanently enjoined the board from holding hearings and making determinations about purportedly excessive rents, asserting that such matters should be handled in court.

Appellate Justices Earl Johnson, Leon Thompson and Mildred Lillie, however, said they saw no harm in allowing the board, as well as courts, to examine complaints of high rent.

No 'Meat Ax'

"Concurrent jurisdiction of agencies and courts has long been a feature of California law," Johnson wrote in the 22-page opinion. "We find nothing . . . suggesting the electorate intended to take a 'meat ax' to these overlapping jurisdictional schemes. There is no evidence overlapping jurisdiction of courts and agencies results in wasteful duplication of manpower, needless public expense, inconvenience and confusion."

Allowing the board to enforce the bulk of the rent control ordinance, the higher court said, has "substantially reduced" the burden that otherwise would have fallen to trial courts.

"We find the administrative adjudication authorized by the rent control ordinance does not undermine the independence, integrity or strength of the judiciary," Johnson wrote. "The ordinance involves no administrative intrusion into causes of action at law or equity traditionally reposed in the courts."

Tenant Complaints

The decision involved the board's handling of a high-rent complaint by two tenants, Linda L. Smith and Kurt Plevka.

The board decided Plevka had been overcharged $2,797.91 and could withhold future rent payments to recoup the money, and that Smith had been overcharged $1,593.08. Smith, who had moved out of her apartment, was not authorized to withhold future rent payments.

Their landlord, Haidy McHugh, sued, claiming the board was unconstitutionally usurping judicial powers and had no authority to decide overcharges or sanction witholding of rent by tenants.

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