Fire: An encampment fire consumed a vacant office building leased by Snap, Inc. on Jan. 13. Photo by: Clara Harter

Jamie Paige / Special to the Daily Press

The Venice civil rights attorney, who disappeared from the public stage after a 2007 conviction for tax evasion, bankruptcy fraud, and money in 2007, is representing the property owner of 723 Ocean Front Walk, the building that burned down in January because of a homeless encampment.

Stephen Yagman filed the lawsuit on behalf of Benjamin Schonbrun; also a civil rights attorney, against Snap Inc, the city of Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Councilmember Mike Bonin, in their official capacity, for what the lawsuit alleges was a failure to maintain a lease agreement and allowing homeless encampments to expand around the building.

The fire destroyed 723 S. Ocean Front Walk on January 13, 2021. It started at an encampment on the south side of the nearly 70-year-old, 6,952-square-foot structure. It took 116 firefighters two hours and 17 minutes to extinguish the flames in a largely defensive firefighting operation.

Although Schonbrun owned the building, the lessee at the time of the fire was Snap Inc., who was not occupying the building. Snap Inc., is headquartered in Santa Monica and is the parent company of Snapchat.

According to the lawsuit, Schonbrun regularly notified Snap, Garcetti, Bonin, and the Los Angeles Police Department of the homeless encampment and its potential negative consequences to the building. But, the lawsuit says that was to no avail.

The lawsuit stated that once Snap had abandoned the building, the company ceased having their private security keep the building safe and secure, ceased enforcing the “No Trespassing” signs, and thus materially breached the lease agreement. The lawsuit alleges the company permitted a homeless encampment to begin and to continue immediately adjacent to and abutting the building, and Snap took no action.

The fire, however, started at the height of a significant encampment outbreak on the Boardwalk. The Westside Current reported numerous stories of multiple businesses and homeowners who had grown frustrated by what they said was Bonin’s permissive behavior of allowing the encampments to remain on the Boardwalk, including at this particular location.

Venice Up In Flames

On October 10, 2020, NBC’s Joel Grover did an investigative story called Venice Up In Flames: Frequent Homeless Tent Fires Threaten Residents and Tourists. In the report, Grover stated that a homeless person’s tent went up in flames in Venice every week, sometimes more than once a day.

The report went on to say that just that week, a tent on the Venice Boardwalk was on fire at 9 a.m. while surfers and tourists strolled by. Venice resident Allan Parsons spoke to Grover and asked, “Are these fires putting nearby homes in danger with embers that could blow off in the middle of a fire?”

Data from the city at the time showed that fires related to homelessness citywide were up 82% compared to the same time last year—naming Venice as one of the epicenters of the fire problem. Unhoused residents told the NBC I-Team most of the fires are arson—homeless people setting other homeless people’s makeshift dwellings on fire.

During a public safety town hall in November of last year, the LAPD pointed to its inability to enforce LAMC 56.11, which would mandate that encampments be dismantled during business hours to curb some violent behavior, including fires, that saw a drastic uptick on the Boardwalk. A question was whether or not Bonin directed the LAPD to stop the enforcement of the ordinance, citing COVID.

In a LA Times report, the Los Angeles Police Department said it would resume enforcing a ban on homeless people pitching tents and lean-tos on the beach and grass areas around the Venice boardwalk after Chief Moore and Bonin ceased the enforcement, citing COVID. However, the reversal was only to begin after the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority had a chance to find spots in shelters for people.

Then, in January of 2021, just a few weeks before the fire, Bonin introduced a motion to stop the city’s mandatory cleanups of homeless encampments and replace them with voluntary, service-based protocols that comply with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines citing COVID.

Bonin said that Los Angeles policy should be guided by the Hippocratic oath, “first, do not harm.” Adding that clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

More on Snap, Inc.

The lawsuit also alleges that Snap breached its duty to keep the exterior of the building free from graffiti, stating that SNAP duly was notified of this breach, and failed and refused to cure it, and would paint over the graffiti with paint that did not match the surrounding exterior paint color, thus further defacing the building.

It also alleges that Snap refused to provide the insurance policy information and, on knowledge and belief, failed to comply with the term of the lease contract that required Snap correctly to insure the premises, to protect both the plaintiff and itself.

At question, why Yagman asked for monetary damages in the lawsuit instead of injunctive relief. Bonin, the City, and Garcetti are protected under discretionary immunity, meaning they are immune from lawsuits. Injunctive relief, also known as an injunction, is a remedy that restrains a party from doing certain acts or requires a party to act in a certain way.

There’s also the question of why Schonbrun, who works at the same law firm as Catherine Sweetser, a civil rights attorney representing CANGRESS, otherwise known as LACAN, as an intervener in the LA Alliance Lawsuit, is suing the city for nuisance when Sweetser is fighting against the enforcement of laws used to enforce anti-camping.

After the fire, the Westside Current reached out to Schonbrun for comment and have yet to hear back.

Schonbrun is seeking $8 million in damages from an estimate of $2.5 million to rebuild the building and additional damages from trebling or asking the court for three times the amount due to deliberate wrongdoing.

Snap has issued no comment regarding the lawsuit after being contacted for this article.

This story was published in partnership with the Westside Current.