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Ninth Circuit Says California District Court Overstepped in Ordering Los Angeles to House Everyone on Skid Row

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on September 27, 2021 12:22 PM

While homelessness is a problem throughout many parts of California, it is particularly acute in Los Angeles. One LA neighborhood infamous for homelessness is "Skid Row," an area just east of downtown that has been home to many of the city's unhoused since at least the 1930s.

The problem of homelessness in LA also hits its Black population hardest. According to Los Angeles County data, Black people in LA County account for 42% of its homeless residents despite only making up 8% of its total population. This discrepancy and the longstanding failure of city officials to address the problem of homelessness among Black residents led U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter in April to order Los Angeles to set aside $1 billion within 180 days to house any homeless person in Skid Row. The order was premised on the court's finding of structural racism in the city's history of redlining, discriminatory lending, and other past mistreatment.

City officials appealed this order, although they did not dispute the premise that structural racism is a cause of homelessness on Skid Row. Instead, the city claimed that the district court issued an overly broad order. On September 23, a unanimous Ninth Circuit panel agreed.

No Dispute Over LA's Housing Crisis

The legal dispute arose when LA Alliance, an organization of Skid Row businesses, filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles claiming that the city failed to properly address the homelessness crisis in the area. Skid Row is home to almost 30% of LA County's homeless population. While city officials have not denied that homelessness is a problem, and have even implemented several programs designed to reduce it, negotiations over possible solutions in Skid Row ultimately broke down. The two sides were unable to agree on what solutions were essential, effective, and feasible to implement.

LA Alliance argued in its lawsuit that the city is in violation of multiple state and federal laws in allowing a dangerous neighborhood "to fester for decades," particularly in light of COVID-19. They asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction to find housing for the homeless population in Skid Row. Though none of the claims alleged racial discrimination, Judge Carter found the city to have violated the equal protection and due process rights of its Black residents.

Not Based On the Pleadings

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals pointed out that Judge Carter based his decision on unpled claims and relied on independent research. Because the plaintiffs in the case did not plead any of the claims Judge Carter relied on in his order, they failed to establish standing. For example, the Ninth Circuit panel pointed out that it wasn't clear from the record that any of the plaintiffs were Black. As Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen put it, "the district court granted relief based on claims that Plaintiffs did not allege, supported by novel legal theories that Plaintiffs did not argue, or against Defendants against whom the claim was not pled."

The Ninth Circuit found that the plaintiffs had standing for only one of their claims: that the city was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing tent encampments and other inaccessible structures to exist on city streets. However, the panel found that the plaintiffs failed to show they had a "likelihood of succeeding on the merits" for the ADA claim, a key requirement for injunctive relief. Another requirement is that the remedy the plaintiffs seek be "tailored" to redressing their particular injury, and the circuit court found that this was lacking both from the plaintiff's end and because the district court order was not "tailored" to the problem of inaccessible structures or city streets.

Because there is agreement about the underlying problem, it is possible negotiations will resume between the two parties. For now, the case is back in district court, and the homeless population and tent encampments on Skid Row will remain.

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