In recognition of Scali Rasmussen's yearslong voluntary service to a class of unlawfully displaced Santa Monica residents, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles recently honored the full service law firm with its Pro Bono Law Firm Award.
The case stemmed from an alleged scheme by a mother-and-sons real estate team to circumvent local rent control and tenant protection laws through negligent maintenance of properties, hoping the poor living conditions and safety hazards would effectively force their own tenants from their longtime homes.
The plot initially seemed to succeed at their Overlook Hotel property, after a fire (which was likely the result of their poor maintenance standards) provided a golden opportunity to terminate tenancies with more than a dozen residents.
Many of the wrongfully evicted tenants had families, and were elderly, disabled, and/or veterans. All were low-income. The defendants refused to assist the tenants with efforts to relocate, as is required by Santa Monica Housing regulations in tenant displacement cases.
The tenants wanted to fight the eviction but lacked the financial means to wage a protracted legal battle against a wealthy, well-established real estate company. So they sought advice from LAFLA's Director of Housing Justice Barbara Schultz, who in turn directed them to Scali Rasmussen. Shareholder John Swenson ultimately co-led the plaintiff's case alongside shareholder Jeffrey Erdman.
"Our clients' position was that the damage could be repaired and did not necessitate an eviction," said Swenson. "This wasn't just some place to store their possessions for these tenants - they had a life here, a community here. The named plaintiff in the case had been living there for 30 years."
On the eve of trial - after years of stop-and-start negotiations - the defendants agreed to a settlement that guaranteed $1 million for the displaced tenants. The efforts by Scali Rasmussen's pro bono team - which collectively dedicated thousands of hours to the effort - were recognized by LAFLA at its Access to Justice Gala in October.
Accepting the award on the team's behalf, Erdman called the case a "remarkable thing to work on" and "a labor of love for so many people in our firm." He highlighted in particular the hard work of Swenson, who personally put in well over a thousand pro bono hours into the case. Christian J. Scali, the firm's managing partner, offered similar praise for Swenson, Erdman, and the rest of the firm's pro bono team.
"While providing top-tier service to our clients is our firm's reason for being, it's always been important for us that we seize any opportunity to make a positive impact on our community," said Scali, who also worked on the case. "We're thankful to LAFLA for recognizing that effort."