Contempt Order Sought Against Rent Board in Santa Monica

Times Staff Writer

Attorneys for a group of landlords are asking a Superior Court judge to find Santa Monica's Rent Control Board officials in contempt of a court order and send them to jail.

Judge Laurence J. Rittenband is expected to rule later this month on whether the five members of the Rent Control Board and two hearing examiners should be held in contempt of an injunction that the judge issued six years ago.

The injunction barred rent control officials from holding hearings on excessive-rent disputes and from penalizing landlords who are found to have overcharged their tenants. Such matters are for a court to decide, Rittenband said when he issued the injunction in 1983.

Landlords' Attorneys

In a hearing Thursday at Santa Monica Superior Court, attorneys David M. Shell and Thomas A. Nitti, who represent several local landlords, argued that the board is violating that injunction and asked that its members be incarcerated.

Shell and Nitti contend that the board has begun taking on excessive-rent cases, settling several by blocking landlords from raising their rents until they refund overcharges to their tenants.

But Joel M. Levy, attorney for the Rent Control Board, argued that the injunction only bars specific excessive-rent procedures for awarding damages. The board can continue to enforce other portions of the rent control law, such as forbidding landlords to raise their rents when they have broken the law.

Rittenband did not seem sympathetic to the rent board's arguments. He said that the intent of his injunction was clear: excessive-rent disputes are for the courts to decide, not the rent board.

"You have no business determining whether excess rent has been charged," Rittenband scolded Levy.

Levy countered that Rittenband seemed to be trying to expand the original intent of his injunction.

In the end, Rittenband said he would allow both sides three more weeks to submit additional briefs before ruling.

Nitti said later he suspected the judge wanted to take more time since a jail sentence is being called for as penalty.

"He may be getting ready to make a real heavy ruling," Nitti said.

Contempt is punishable by no more than five days in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000 for each contempt citation. Shell said each rent board member is guilty of at least two incidents of contempt, and the two hearing examiners guilty of three each.

Susan Packer Davis, chairwoman of the Rent Control Board, said jail seemed a "far-fetched" and inappropriate punishment. She contended that board commissioners are obeying the injunction and conducting business that is not mentioned in the injunction, such as petitions for rent decreases from tenants and rent increases from landlords.

"If issues of excess rent come up in these other contexts . . . our job is do to something about them," she said. "But we are not . . . acting like a court."

Rittenband issued the injunction on Nov. 15, 1983, in connection with a lawsuit brought by Haidy McHugh. McHugh sued the rent board after the panel found that she had overcharged two tenants and awarded them triple the amount of the overcharge as damages.

Rittenband in that case sided with McHugh, saying the board had unconstitutionally exceeded its authority and assumed powers usually reserved for the judiciary. In 1985, a state Court of Appeal overturned that ruling, and the case is pending before the state Supreme Court.

Rittenband said Thursday his decision in the contempt hearing assumes that his earlier ruling is upheld by the Supreme Court.

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