Matthew Hall

SMDP Editor

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles recently honored the Scali Rasmussen law firm with its Pro Bono Law Firm Award in recognition of a yearslong effort to find justice for a group of Santa Monica residents displaced from their homes.

The case began in 2015 when the Overlook Hotel caught fire.

The fire was a result of the building’s substandard electrical system statements Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and Scali Rasmussen, who represented the tenants pro bono. The tenants said the building also contained defective plumbing, fire prevention and heating systems, mold and infestations of bedbugs and cockroaches.

In the 2016 lawsuit, the tenants alleged that their landlords, the Mink family, maintained their apartment building in an uninhabitable and unsafe condition and then illegally tried to terminate their tenancies after the fire forced them to vacate the building and failed to pay them temporary relocation benefits required under local law.

After the fire, the Mink family filed paperwork with the Santa Monica Rent Control Board to withdraw the property from the residential rental housing market under the Ellis Act. They then began planning to convert the Overlook Hotel and adjacent properties into a commercial enterprise.

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.”

The Mink family delayed the trial in the lawsuit for three and a half years before a judge ruled they had to pay their former tenants $1 million.

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.”

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...