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Lawsuit filed against L.A. County courts over changes for eviction cases

Saying that a Los Angeles County Superior Court plan to reduce the number of courts handling landlord disputes “shuts the courthouse doors on many of the countys most vulnerable residents,” several legal aid organizations have challenged the move in federal court.

These organizations said the reduction in the number of courthouses hearing such cases from 26 to five throughout the county will create difficulties for low-income tenants and people with disabilities fighting eviction.

Landlords and tenants alike now have to travel up to 32 miles to litigate their cases, court officials have said. Tenant advocates, including the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, are concerned that low-income tenants will not be able to meet the challenges of added travel time and expense. The trips “to the courthouse for these tenants will require numerous transfers and travel to unfamiliar areas and will be prohibitively difficult and expensive,” the lawsuit states.

The plan to send eviction cases, known as unlawful detainers, to designated “hub” courthouses began in March. Eviction cases are only heard in courts with leaner workloads, like Pasadena, Long Beach and Santa Monica.

Last year, 67,182 evictions were filed in Los Angeles County courts. By comparison Santa Monica’s courts saw only 4,600.

The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in downtown Los Angeles, seeks to halt the plan and demands a jury trial.

The courts plan comes as the system works to close a $56-million-to-$85-million budget shortfall by the beginning of the fiscal year July 1, said Mary Hearn, a court spokeswoman.

Assigning eviction cases to certain courts is part of an overall cost-cutting plan that includes the closure of 10 regional courthouses.

Under California law, tenants in most cases have five days to file a written response to the lawsuit brought by their landlords. If the person does not file a response within that time frame, the court rules in favor of the landlord.

The court also enters a judgment in the landlords favor if the tenant does not appear in court. Judges typically hear and decide cases within 20 days after the landlord or tenant requests that the case go to trial.

In a letter to Presiding Judge David S. Wesley, who is named in the lawsuit, State Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills) called the courts plan “simply unacceptable.”

Your proposed plan will impose insurmountable conditions on low-income renters needing to defend themselves in unlawful detainer complaints and undeniably push more working families into the chasm of homeless, wrote Blumenfield, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee.

Court officials have said years of budget cuts by the state have left no option but to reduce services and lay off workers. The L.A. County court system already has laid off hundreds of employees and left more positions unfilled.

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