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U.S. District Court Grants Comprehensive Preliminary Injunction Ordering Los Angeles to Shelter the Homeless Population—Ninth Circuit Stays the Order Temporarily

U.S. District Court Grants Comprehensive Preliminary Injunction Ordering Los Angeles to Shelter the Homeless Population—Ninth Circuit Stays the Order Temporarily
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By Bridget McDonald

In a sweeping 110-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter for the Central District of California granted a preliminary injunction sought by plaintiffs in LA Alliance for Human Rights, et. al. v. City of Los Angeles, et. al.requiring the City and County of Los Angeles (City) to act on homelessness. The initial order directed the City to provide shelter or housing to every homeless person living on “skid row” within 180 days, and to place $1 billion in escrow to be used for homelessness efforts throughout the City. On May 13, 2021, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the order, pending resolution of the City’s emergency stay motions and evidentiary hearing. [LA Alliance for Human Rights, et. al. v. City of Los Angeles, et. al., ___F.Supp.3d___, Case No. 2:20-cv-02291 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 21, 2021).]

Factual and Procedural Background

The LA Alliance for Human Rights (LA Alliance) is a coalition comprised of Los Angeles residents, business owners, and stakeholders dedicated to finding solutions that address the homeless crisis and its related impact on health and safety issues throughout the region. On March 10, 2020, LA Alliance and numerous individual plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit against the City in response to the surge in homelessness. As plaintiffs explain, homelessness in the City has increased by 75 percent since 2012, with the population nearly doubling in the last three years. To date, nearly 36,300 homeless individuals live in Los Angeles. This exponential growth has yielded an unfavorable strain on the City’s infrastructure. The multiplication of homeless encampments has fostered unsanitary conditions, including vermin outbreaks, property crimes, and environmental impacts from the production and removal of human waste and detritus. Plaintiffs explain that these impacts have directly impacted their public health and properties due to loss of customers and tenants, and property damage.

Despite public outcry, plaintiffs contend the City has failed to allocate sufficient funds to proactively address this crisis. In 2019, taxpayers approved “Proposition HHH”—a City project that dedicates $1.2 billion to homelessness by constructing supportive units for homeless residents and affordable units for low-income residents. Despite this, plaintiffs argue the City has failed to swiftly and appropriately allocate the funds towards proven strategies with measurable results, thereby wasting taxpayer funds and allowing the problem to grow out of control.

For these reasons, plaintiffs allege 14 causes of actions related to the City’s alleged failure to address homelessness. The complaint contends that the City’s lack of action rose to claims under common, state, and federal law, including: negligence; violation of the California Civil Code, the California Welfare & Institutions Code, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the California Disabled Persons Act; violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code; and state and federal constitutional violations, including inverse condemnation, uncompensated taking, and violation of due process.

In the days and months following the filing of plaintiffs’ complaint, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California supervised the City’s response to homeless populations amidst the worsening COVID-19 pandemic. Judge David O. Carter directed the City to provide sanitary stations and facilities to combat the spread of the coronavirus in homeless encampments. In the months thereafter, the parties attempted but failed to reach a settlement agreement regarding how the City should house homeless residents. As such, Plaintiffs filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction directing the City to immediately house all homeless individuals and redirect Proposition HHH funding towards temporary housing solutions.

The District Court’s Decision

On April 20, 2021, Judge Carter granted plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction. The 110-page opinion chronicles the multi-faceted history of the City’s homeless crisis. Explaining that the Court could not “idly bear witness to preventable deaths,” and that the City and County had “shown themselves to be unable or unwilling to devise effective solutions to L.A.’s homelessness crisis,” Judge Carter argued that judicial intervention is necessary because the “ever-worsening public health and safety emergency demands immediate, life-saving action.”

History of Homelessness in Los Angeles

The Opinion’s Introduction recounts the history and evolution of homelessness in Los Angeles City and County. Though a multi-faceted issue, Judge Carter argues that homelessness is largely affected by, and contributes to, six key factors, including: race; disconnected public statements on homelessness; failure to exercise emergency powers for an emergency situation; government inaction; public health and safety; and gender.

Judge Carter began by explaining that the current homeless crisis is rooted in a “legacy of entrenched structural racism” that the City and County created through “redlining, containment, eminent domain, exclusionary zoning, and gentrification—designed to segregate and disenfranchise communities of color[.]” These practices span numerous chapters of history, including pre- and post-World War II, the Great Depression, the midcentury construction of the City’s freeway network, and the creation of the “Skid Row containment zone.” In turn, communities of color—particularly Black and Latino/a Angelenos—have disproportionately suffered historic rates of displacement, lack of property ownership, and in turn, homelessness.

Today, Judge Carter argued that affordable housing has compounded the current housing insecurity crisis. For example, the City’s shift from public housing to affordable housing has resulted in prioritizing higher-earning individuals over sustainable public housing initiatives, thereby excluding non-white residents who fall under “extremely low-income” brackets. To this end, Judge Carter contended that the Housing Element of the City’s General Plan fails to remove constraints that would otherwise preserve existing affordable housing units and protect residents from displacement. By way of example, he observed that 75 percent of the City’s residential property is zoned for single-family homes—a statistic that, absent major rezoning initiatives, will continue contributing to the City’s lack of infrastructure to meet demand and house homeless individuals. Judge Carter argued that, in the wake of the looming update to the City’s Housing Element, “never has there been so urgent of a need to utilize the Housing Element to restructure and reform the housing needs of [the City’s] citizens.”

As articulated by plaintiffs, Judge Carter contended that the “disconnect between politicians’ public statements about the severity of the crisis and the actual efforts made to fund effective solutions” has grown congruently with the City’s doubling homeless population. Nearly four years into Proposition HHH’s ten-year plan to develop 10,000 housing units, Judge Carter queried why the City has only been able to construct seven projects containing 489 total units, most of which provide long-term affordable housing, rather than temporary or interim shelters that provide immediate relief.

Ultimately, Judge Carter argued that the homeless crisis has congruently created a simultaneous public health crisis throughout the City. As an example, he explains that encampments near freeways are considered “environmentally hazardous” for homeless residents due to chronic exposure to diesel sooth, vehicle exhaust, and other airborne carcinogens that cause lung and heart disease, asthma, and elevated cancer risks. Homeless populations also face other environmental risks, including heat stroke from exposure to warming temperatures, hypothermia from low temperatures or high winds, and heightened exposure to disease from a lack of sanitary and hygienic services.

Injunctive Relief—Likelihood of Success on the Merits

For the reasons set forth in the opinion’s introduction, Judge Carter argued that the court is compelled to take immediate, life-saving action to address Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis. While conceding that a preliminary injunction is an “extraordinary remedy” that requires courts to balance competing claims on a case-by-case basis with particular regard for the public consequences, Judge Carter qualified that a District Court may order injunctive relief on its own motion and is not restricted to ordering the relief requested by plaintiffs. Accordingly, a preliminary injunction is appropriate if the court finds that: 1) there is a likelihood of success on the merits; 2) absent preliminary relief, irreparable harm is likely; 3) the balance of equities tips in favor of preliminary relief; and 4) the injunction is in the public interest.

To satisfy the first prong, the court explains that Plaintiffs must establish a likelihood of success on the merits by demonstrating that the law and facts clearly favor their position, not simply that they are likely to succeed. In this case, the court argues that several constitutional principles support a finding that the law and facts clearly favor Plaintiffs’ position. Judge Carter observes that “throughout history, the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of our government have taken it upon themselves to remedy racial discrimination.” For example, he explains that the Supreme Court’s opinions in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971), and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee Cty., Kan., 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (Brown I), supplemented sub nom. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., 349 U.S. 294 (1955) (Brown II), arose out of the judiciary’s recognition of historic racial discrimination and the pressing need to remediate such impacts. Here, Judge Carter argues that this case is similar to, and deeply intertwined with, the circumstances that gave rise to the Swann, Brown I, and Brown II decisions. Thus, Judge Carter found that the City’s inaction, misappropriation of taxpayer funds, and ineffective housing policies have perpetuated systemic inequity and racial bias that disproportionately affects access to housing among communities of color. The court held that these disparities are long recognized as “severe constitutional violations” that are “so corrosive to human life and dignity as to justify the sweeping exercise of a federal district court’s equitable powers.”

Under this lens, the court specifically held that plaintiffs can likely succeed on each of their constitutional violation claims, including those alleging liability under the state-created danger and special-relationship exceptions to the Fourteenth Amendment, violation of the Equal Protection Clause through state inaction, and violation of the Fifth Amendment right to family integrity. Judge Carter argued that as state actors, the City and County have simultaneously violated and failed to protect the constitutional interests of homeless individuals, particularly within communities of color. The City and County have abdicated their duty to act, enacted containment policies that restrain personal liberty, and imposed discriminatory policies that have uprooted families from their communities. The court further found that the City and County are likely liable under plaintiffs’ statutory claims, including violations of section 17000 of the state Welfare and Institutions Code and violations under the federal American with Disabilities Act, due to the localities’ persistent inaction to treat and house homeless individuals.

Irreparable Harm

As to the second prong, the court likewise found that plaintiffs will likely suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief because the deprivation of constitutional rights “unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” During a time where nearly five or more homeless individuals die per day, Judge Carter held that “no harm could be more grave or irreparable than the loss of life.”

Balancing of Equities and the Public Interest

The court applied this rationale to further find that plaintiffs satisfy the third prong supporting injunctive relief, which requires that the balance of equities tip in plaintiffs’ favor. As to the fourth and final prong, which requires that plaintiffs demonstrate that the public interest favors granting an injunction, Judge Carter not only held that plaintiffs have satisfied their burden, but also finds that “the current state of the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles begs intervention.” The court rejected the City’s argument that granting the injunction would not be in the public’s interest because it would “usurp the discretionary policy making decisions of the City’s elected officials and impose mandatory duties.” Judge Carter explained that the court seeks to ensure accountability and promote action where there has historically been inaction by issuing practical flexibility in its remedy. For these reasons, the court expressed its lack of confidence in the City’s newly announced spending budget, finding that there is:

. . .no reason to believe that the City’s new budget will be in any way adequate to meet the crisis of homelessness or overcome decades of intentional racism and deliberate indifference.

A Two-Prong Order for Injunctive Relief

Judge Carter explained that, because plaintiffs have satisfied their burden supporting issuance of a preliminary injunction, the court found it necessary and “in the proper exercise of its equitable powers to craft an immediate response to this unconscionable humanitarian crisis.” The court explained that, under Article III of the Constitution, the court enjoys broad equitable powers that it may employ “as a means of enforcement to compel defendants to take certain steps to ensure compliance with constitutional mandates” and to redress statutory violations. To this end, the court reiterated that its authority is guided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493 (2011), which:

. . .upheld district courts’ authority to use their equitable powers when necessary to address constitutional violations even where those powers shape local government’s authority and impacts their budget.

With this framework in mind, the court issued a two-pronged order centered on “accountability” and “action.” As to the “Accountability” prong, the court ordered that the City place $1 billion of its “justice budget” in escrow immediately, with funding streams account for and reported to the court within seven days. Within 90 days, the court ordered the City to conduct an audit of all funds received from local, state, and federal entities intended to aid the Los Angeles homeless crisis, as well as prepare a report on all developers that are currently receiving Proposition HHH funds, and propose revised measures to limit misuse or waste of such funds.

As to the “Action” prong, the court ordered the City Controller to oversee creation of a report within 30 days that identifies potential land available to house and shelter homeless individuals in each district. The court further ordered the cessation of all sales, transfers by lease or covenant, of the properties identified in the report. The court further mandated that the City and County offer—and if accepted, provide—shelter or housing immediately to all unaccompanied women and children living on skid row within 90 days, to all families within 120 days, and to the general population living on skid row in 180 days. Within 90 days, the County is also required to provide individuals in need of special placement with appropriate emergency, interim, or permanent housing for mental health treatment services. Finally, the City and County must prepare a “hyper-local” and community-based plan that ensures skid row is uplifted and enhanced without involuntarily displacing its current residents to other areas of Los Angeles.

Conclusion and Implications

At the time of this writing, a three-judge panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order on May 13, 2021, staying Judge Carter’s April 20, 2021 Order. In its ruling, the Ninth Circuit panel placed an administrative hold on the judge’s decree until June 15 in order to determine the impact of an evidentiary hearing scheduled later this month in the case. The appellate court also asked for additional briefs from all parties, with the goal of a Ninth Circuit hearing in July.

In the interim, some litigants may find that Judge Carter’s Opinion and Order deviate from acceptable forms of injunctive relief, while improperly infringing upon the sanctity of the separation of powers. Other litigants may find that the opinion represents the first proactive step to address a worsening humanitarian and constitutional crisis that has been compounded by decades of political inaction. Thus, while it remains to be seen how the case will ultimately transpire at both the District Court and Court of Appeals’ levels, the opinion shines light on an increasingly multi-faceted problem that the judiciary has previously left undisturbed, despite its nationwide impact on localities. For more information of the court’s order, see:

Bridget K. McDonald is an associate attorney in the Sacramento-based boutique law firm of Remy Moose Manley, LLP, which specializes in environmental law, land use and planning, water law, initiatives and referenda, and administrative law generally. Ms. McDonald joined the firm in 2019.

Bridget’s practice focuses on land use and environmental law, handling all phases of the land use entitlement and permitting processes, including administrative approvals and litigation. Her practice includes CEQA, NEPA, the State Planning and Zoning Law, natural resources, endangered species, air and water quality, and other land use environmental statutes.

Bridget serves on the Editorial Board of the California Land Use Law & Policy Reporter.