In a landmark case, two companies that manage military housing have been fined for illegally evicting service members and their families from rental homes.
The settlements with California and the federal government, totaling more than half a million dollars, involve 17 troops stationed in San Diego County and one in Orange County.
The tenants were evicted for not paying rent, but state and federal laws bar eviction when active-duty service members can't appear in court because of their duties — typically a deployment — and lack an attorney to represent them.
Regulators said Lincoln Military Property Management and San Diego Family Housing not only failed to alert the courts about their tenants' service status, but actually filed affidavits falsely categorizing those individuals as not being on active duty.
In addition, the companies ran afoul of privacy laws by submitting court documents that included un-redacted birth dates, Social Security numbers and other personal information for almost 100 troops and their family members.
In a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, the companies agreed to joint penalties and fees of $260,000 resulting from four improper evictions in San Diego County that occurred between 2008 and 2013. It was the first time the department pursued action against someone who allegedly violated portions of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act that deal with rental-home evictions.
Meanwhile, Lincoln Military and San Diego Family Housing also agreed to combined fines and fees of $252,000 levied by the California attorney general's office. That office said the companies violated the federal statute along with the California Military and Veterans Code and other state laws governing debt collection.
Both settlements were announced last week.
"It is unconscionable that companies would prey upon and illegally evict service members and their families from their homes," Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said in a statement.
In response to a request for comment, the two companies issued a joint statement Friday saying: "It is unfortunate that this occurred, but we have taken specific actions to address it. We look forward to continuing to provide excellent housing and healthy communities to the military families who reside in our ... housing units in California and across our country who we are honored to serve."
On Saturday, in a housing community that Lincoln Military manages in the Murphy Canyon neighborhood of San Diego, resident Brittany Marks said her husband knows one of the families that was illegally evicted. She declined to identify the household for privacy reasons.
"It caused them so much needless stress and embarrassment," Marks said. "They're really insulted, and I am too, because these are businesses supposedly dedicated to serving our military families. If they don't know the laws protecting troops or decided to ignore them, that's beyond forgiveness."
In their statement, Lincoln Military and San Diego Family Housing said the law firm that handled the evictions — Kimball, Tirey & St. John — will pay the settlement fines because it wrongly pursued the 18 cases and failed to redact the personal details in court documents it submitted.
Much of the money will be used as debt-relief restitution for the evicted families. Regulators said the targeted companies also will, among other things, forgive any rent balance still due, work with the nation's credit bureaus to fix the affected tenants' credit reports and pay for identity-theft protection for at least one year.
Lincoln Military said it manages 36,000 military family homes nationwide, including housing communities linked to about a dozen bases across California. San Diego Family Housing is a partnership company formed between Lincoln and the U.S. Defense Department.
Phan writes for the San Diego Union Tribune.