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January 2013

Gordon & Rees San Francisco Team Wins Summary Judgment In Landlord-Tenant Mold and Habitability Case

Gordon & Rees partner John Hughes and associate James Holder of San Francisco recently won summary judgment on behalf of a large residential property management company in an environmental contamination personal injury case.

The plaintiff, a former apartment tenant, sought several hundred thousand dollars in damages on behalf of herself and her two sons claiming that mold and other environmental conditions in the apartment caused her family to develop a litany of skin and respiratory conditions. According to plaintiff, her injuries forced her to abandon her career as a real estate agent and relocate to another state to start over.

Hughes and Holder argued that the tenant had relinquished these personal injury claims as a consequence of language in a settlement agreement between the parties resolving a different lawsuit, an unlawful detainer action. The argument was made more difficult by the fact that the settlement agreement (drafted by prior counsel, not G&R) did not explicitly identify the personal injury environmental suit, even though both actions were pending at the same time.

In opposition, the plaintiff argued that it was inequitable and not a fair reading of the unlawful detainer settlement agreement to conclude that she had intended it to also relinquish her environmental personal injury claims.

To prevail, Hughes and Holder had to persuade the court that the unlawful detainer settlement agreement demonstrated the plaintiff's express intent to waive her environmental personal injury claims based largely on the implication of certain language in the agreement describing what claims generally would be retained, as opposed to any specific language describing what claims would be released.

Two earlier demurrers on this issue were unsuccessful and the tentative ruling was to deny the summary judgment motion. However, Alameda Superior Court Judge Jon S. Tigar, recently confirmed by the Senate as a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of California, listened to an hour of oral arguments and, after several weeks, reversed his tentative ruling. Tigar adopted the arguments of Hughes and Holder as the only permissible interpretation of the agreement, and ruled that the earlier demurrer rulings by a different judge were in error.

James K. Holder