The COVID-19 crisis has emboldened some bad actors to take advantage of vulnerable people, including those living in poverty. Fortunately, LAFLA’s team has been able to thwart attempts to penalize people for no wrongdoing of their own – including the case involving Victoria Osorno and her partner Abraham.
In 2017, Victoria and Abraham signed a lease for a single-family house in North Hollywood. For the next three years, they diligent paid rent to their property management and made a comfortable home for themselves and their two young children.
On March 2, 2020, as COVID-19 fears were taking hold, Victoria and Abraham were informed by their management company that the home had been sold to new owners. Yet the reality was darker than these were led to believe.
A week later, the couple met with the new owner and his real estate agent. The tenants learned their former management company had fraudulently obtained the title to both their home and many others (a scandal that received media attention). The “new owner” had in fact owned the home up until 2001; and the title was awarded back to them after the property manager forfeited it in a federal criminal fraud case.
Victoria and Abraham were blindsided by this news. But the next part stung even more: The real estate agent insisted that Victoria and Abraham leave within 10 days, because the new owner “owed a lot of money to his lawyer.” It is understandable that the new owner wanted the home back; but to sweep it from under the tenants’ feet was completely unexpected.
“We never thought something like this would happen to us,” said Victoria. “We’ve never had any issues with the law, and then they tried to kick us out, turn everything off, and say we were part of the fraud. It was really frustrating.”
The following weeks were a mix of uncertainty and fear for Victoria and her partner, who faced constant pressure from both the owner’s real estate agent and attorney to move – even in the midst of a pandemic. The attorney insisted the couple had no legal right to stay in the home, and implied the tenants were connected to the previous owner’s criminal activity – and could be liable for up to $122,000 in damages to his client.
“I couldn’t sleep, especially with all the news about the coronavirus,” added Victoria. “I thought there was no hope – I thought we were going to be on the streets.”
A friend recommended Victoria and Abraham reach out to LAFLA for help. In late April, LAFLA’s Eviction Defense Center sprang into action on the couple’s behalf and tried to negotiate a move-out agreement. The new owner’s attorney rebuffed the attempt – and on May 7, promised that if the tenants had not moved by Mother’s Day, May 10, he would request the U.S. Marshals Service physically remove the tenants from their home within five days.
LAFLA Attorney Christopher Homandberg informed the new owner’s attorney that they would oppose his motion to request the U.S. Marshals Service: “Attempting to throw our clients into a federal criminal case in order to circumvent state tenancy laws and the emergency COVID-19 eviction moratorium is an improper use of judicial processes.”
But the new owner’s attorney followed through on his promise by filing the emergency motion on May 12, 2020.
Within 24 hours, staffers across LAFLA worked together to file an opposition to this motion. LAFLA argued that the use of the U.S. Marshals Service in this manner would deprive their clients due process of law, improperly circumvent legal eviction procedures, and ignore emergency housing policy in the face of COVID-19.
On May 18, 2020, the judge heard both sides’ motions, argued by LAFLA Attorney Ryan Kendall; and found in favor of LAFLA’s position — that use of the criminal forfeiture ruling in this case was improper grounds for eviction; and that the proper venue was the state civil courts. This provided Victoria and her family time in the safety of their home during the current COVID-19 crisis and more importantly, receive the legal process entitled to them.
“They worked really hard for us and came up with a solution, and helped us through the case,” said Victoria. “They were there all the time. I can’t be thankful enough – I’m so happy with the work LAFLA did.”