Espinoza v. Calva, 169 Cal.App.4th 1393 (2008)

Blaming one’s secretary for an error or omission is a time-honored attorney tradition, even if there is no documented instance of this excuse actually working in court. But an Orange County judge presiding over an unlawful detainer trial took the excuse one step further by trying to blame his failure to prepare a Statement of Decision on the absence of a secretary. Same result – the Court of Appeal reversed, noting that the secretarial absence might have been less than a complete explanation given that the Statement of Decision could have been made orally.

The appellate court also was unamused by the trial court’s ruling that because of scheduling conflicts the tenant’s counsel had to present his entire case in 20 minutes. The Court of Appeal held that this error was not cured by accepting an offer of proof that the tenant would testify to the truthfulness of her affirmative defenses.

Turning to the merits, the court held that the lack of a certificate of occupancy as required by a Santa Ana ordinance rendered the lease an illegal contract. A landlord without a certificate had no right to collect past due rent, the Court of Appeal concluded.

The Court of Appeal also held that reversal was warranted by the trial court’s failure to follow Code of Civil Procedure § 1174.2, which requires that once a breach of the warranty of habitability is found, among other things the landlord is not entitled to possession and the tenant is entitled to an award of costs and attorneys’ fees. The trial court’s ruling reducing the rent owed by $1,000 constituted an implied finding of a breach, which should have triggered compliance with § 1174.2, the Court of Appeal held. [Download]