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San Diego homeless lawsuit survives against city and county, but most claims dismissed

Letisha Vazquez goes through her belongings at the Convention Center, where people and cots are spaced apart
Letisha Vazquez goes through her belongings at the Alpha Project homeless shelter at the San Diego Convention Center on June 5, 2020, in San Diego.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A Superior Court judge has dismissed most of the claims in a lawsuit that accused San Diego city and county officials of discriminating against homeless people with disabilities during the fight against the spread of COVID-19.

Judge Katherine Bacal sustained four of six demurrers filed by the city and county, saying the government agencies successfully argued that the allegations brought by attorneys representing five plaintiffs were not sufficient to proceed to trial.

A demurrer is a common legal argument for dismissing a complaint on the basis that it lacks relevance, rather than disputing the facts asserted.

“Petitioners are on their third iteration of their complaint,” Bacal wrote in her Aug. 13 ruling. “And they seem to be no closer to identifying a ministerial duty with which either the city or county failed to comply.”

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City and county officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the decision. A lawyer for the plaintiffs said parts of the suit will move forward.

The case filed last year accused housing and public health officials of discriminating against homeless people with disabilities by steering them into congregate-living situations instead of moving them into hotel and motel rooms.

Each tent has a storage unit to keep the area free of clutter and litter

The plaintiffs said in their lawsuit that they were denied help unless they agreed to move into facilities like the temporary shelter set up last year in the San Diego Convention Center.

They said they could not move into a community shelter setting without compromising their health and safety. They applied for single hotel and motel rooms but were denied those services, according to their lawsuit.

Bacal allowed two of the six arguments to move forward: one is an allegation that defendants violated a state Government Code section that prohibits discrimination against protected classes of people and the other is a claim for a judicial declaration that the defendants acted improperly.

“Petitioners allege they were denied full and equal access to the benefits of the ‘Homeless Programs’ based on their disabilities and race,” the judge ruled. “Petitioners also allege the ‘Homeless Programs’ were ‘funded directly by the state or receives any financial assistance from the state.’

“That is sufficient for pleading purposes,” she concluded, meaning the issue may go forward.

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Bacal also allowed the plaintiffs to sue for declaratory relief, which if granted at trial would amount to a determination by the court that the city and county did not meet at least some of their obligations under state law.

“The county admits that the cause of action for declaratory relief ‘rest(s) on claims of discrimination and unequal treatment,” she ruled.

Bacal also allowed the plaintiffs to amend two of the four arguments that were dismissed, effectively giving the plaintiffs’ lawyers another chance to make their case.

Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi, the senior attorney at Disability Rights California who filed the complaint, said despite the legal efforts by city and county lawyers to stop the case, it will proceed.

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“The claim concerning discrimination in state-funded programs is intact and the court granted the opportunity to add facts to support violations of two additional anti-discrimination laws, including the Unruh Civil Rights Act,” she said.

“In the coming days, we will be analyzing next steps with our clients,” she added.

The case was filed on behalf of five homeless people with specific disabilities: Arthur Price, Cherrie Dosio, Christopher Voelp, Patrick Quinones and Keith Reid.

They were joined by a local nonprofit group — Food Not Bombs San Diego — which claimed it had to redirect its limited resources to assist clients whom city and county officials would not help.

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“The city deployed law enforcement to threaten and cite homeless individuals with quality of life ordinance violations against the (federal) guidelines (and) withheld available non-congregate housing options from high-risk homeless individuals,” the legal complaint alleged.

“In addition, the county placed its public health nurses with the city’s Homeless Outreach Team to screen homeless individuals for services, however upon information and belief, high-risk homeless individuals were not screened for eligibility, referred to appropriate shelter options, nor connected to services,” it added.

In her initial decision, a tentative ruling that was released just ahead of a court hearing held Aug. 6, Bacal agreed that the plaintiffs could proceed with a claim that the city and county violated a section of the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

But at the hearing, government lawyers persuaded the judge that the allegation should be dismissed, though Bacal gave the plaintiffs another chance to restate their claim.

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Ijadi-Maghsoodi said a ruling granting declaratory relief would not help those who already were harmed by city and county practices but it could help prevent others from suffering similar damages in the future.

“They were not only denied shelter but also locked out of services, including permanent housing provided to those who stayed at the convention center,” she said.

A case management conference is scheduled in October.


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