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$350,000 Punitive Damages for Wrongful Eviction

On November 2, 2017, the Court of Appeal, 3rd District upheld a trial court’s judgment for $87,894 in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages, plus costs, prejudgment interest, and attorney fees for wrongful eviction against Sacramento landlord, Raj Singh and his wife Kiran Rawat individually and as trustees of the Sita Ram or “Sitaram” Trust (Trust).  The case was Fernandes v. Singh, November 2, 2017.

Between November 2010 and April 11, 2012, Singh filed three eviction actions against tenant, Tammy Fernandes.

Prior to those suits, Mr. Singh had already been determined by the California Courts to be a vexatious litigant.  Under California law, vexatious litigants are required to perform certain steps before filing further lawsuits.  However, Singh deceived the court as to the nature of the plaintiff.  According to the opinion, Singh’s attorney, Keith Oliver, was subsequently disbarred for his conduct in connection with this case.

None of the evictions was successful, because, inter alia, the trial court found the premises uninhabitable.  Indeed, the trial court had ordered the landlord to make repairs, but the landlord refused.

The result of the April 11, 2012 eviction was that Singh “…falsely stated an amount of unpaid rent (disregarding the conditional judgment), filed a fraudulent proof of service, took [Fernandes’] default, obtained an eviction order, had the sheriff evict her, and then changed the locks.”

The Appellate Court described the result of this wrongful eviction as such:

“Fernandes returned home after working a graveyard shift as a waitress at a Denny’s restaurant to find herself locked out, with deputies barring her entrance, so she could not “retrieve even her most rudimentary belongings” including “necessities of life, like food and clothing.”  She had nowhere to live, stayed with friends, and struggled to keep her job.”

The trial court found that “Singh rented uninhabitable premises to Fernandes at an exorbitant rental rate and then retaliated against her when she complained about the uninhabitable conditions.  His conduct is utterly indefensible.”  The trial court awarded $87,894 in compensatory damages.  On clear and convincing evidence of the “extreme reprehensibility of [landlords’] conduct,” and “[i]n consideration of the evidence of financial condition, the trial court awarded Fernandes $350,000 in punitive damages.

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The Appellate Court reviewed the trial court’s discussion of punitive damages.

“The trial court detailed a vicious and premeditated course of conduct that meets the standard for punitive damages.  “Of the three guideposts that the [United States Supreme Court] court outlined [to establish the propriety of an award of punitive damages], the most important is the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct.”

“On this question, the high court instructed courts to consider whether‘ [1] the harm caused was physical as opposed to economic; [2] the tortious conduct evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard of the health or safety of others; [3] the target of the conduct had financial vulnerability; [4] the conduct involved repeated actions or was an isolated incident; and [5] the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, or mere accident.”  (Roby v. McKesson Corp (2009) 47 Cal.4th 686, 713.)”

The Appellate Court then analyzed the facts on the record:

In this case, all five factors are present, even without considering all prior actions by the defendants.  After Fernandes returned home from working a graveyard shift as a Denny’s waitress and without any prior notice due to the fraudulent proof of service — she found herself without a home or her necessary property, such as food and clothing.  This caused her emotional distress, not merely economic harm.  She struggled to keep her job after the fraudulent eviction and had to stay with friends, showing she could not financially absorb the blow defendants inflicted.  The conduct was repeated, in that this was the third baseless attempt to evict Fernandes; it was no accident, but was part of a vicious campaign to stop her from seeking habitable housing.  Defendants showed no remorse, inasmuch as they took no steps to remedy the substandard conditions, as reported by the subsequent tenants.  (See Lopez v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc. (2016) 246 Cal.App.4th 566, 592-593 [proof of a pattern of misconduct would be relevant to show a defendant acted with willful and conscious disregard].)

The Appellate Court found no merit in the landlords’ Appeal, calling the arguments “incoherent.”

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