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News / Business / Clark County Business

Court fight over Vancouver case tests WA’s protections for tenants threatened with eviction

The dispute centers on settlement agreements used to resolve eviction cases and whether they’re valid if they require renters to sign away rights granted by state law.

By LAUREL DEMKOVICH, Washington State Standard
Published: July 5, 2024, 2:40pm

When a tenant in Washington faces eviction, it’s possible they can reach a settlement agreement with their landlord that allows them to stay in their home.

A state law approved in 2021 bars these agreements from forcing renters to waive certain protections – things like rights to mediation of tenant-landlord disagreements, rent repayment plans, and 14-day eviction notices.

That law is now getting tested by litigation that is on the verge of landing before the state Supreme Court. The landlord in the case lost the last round of the legal fight, with a three-judge state appeals court panel ruling in favor of the Vancouver tenants who filed the lawsuit.

Tenant advocates say the court got it right.

“This is the exact type of agreement that the Legislature was trying to prevent from happening, in recognition of the landlord’s upper hand in an eviction case,” said Northwest Justice Project attorney John Wolff, who represented the tenants in this case.

But Princeton Property Management, the company at odds with the tenants, says if the latest ruling holds, it will upend the use of the settlement agreements, drastically reshaping how eviction cases are handled in Washington and landing more of them in court.

The agreements are one of the most common ways evictions in the state are resolved.

In their unanimous ruling last month, the appeals court judges acknowledged the company’s concerns but suggested Princeton was raising policy issues that would be better addressed by the Legislature rather than a court.

On Monday, attorneys for Princeton asked the court of appeals to reconsider its decision. If the court does not agree to do so, the company plans to file a motion requesting that the state Supreme Court review the case, attorney Drew Mazzeo told the Standard.

The case

In 2021, state lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting eviction settlement agreements that involved tenants waiving any rights afforded to them in Washington’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act. Any agreement that does require a tenant to waive their rights is considered “void and unenforceable.”

In the Vancouver case, Princeton Property Management issued its first eviction notice to Kathleen and Aaron Allen, a mother and daughter, in late 2022 due to an unclean apartment. In court documents, lawyers for Princeton said there was “an extreme accumulation of garbage, debris and filth.”

Both the Allens were diabetic and in wheelchairs, and the eviction came while Kathleen Allen was hospitalized, according to the tenants’ attorneys.

The Allens were able to avoid eviction by reaching a settlement with Princeton and agreeing to clean their apartment and let landlords inspect it.

Also in the agreement was a provision that required the Allens to pay rent on a certain day and time, and if they failed to do so, Princeton could immediately evict them. It also included a line: “By signing this Agreement, the parties forego the usual unlawful detainer procedures.”

Unlawful detainer is a term used to refer to eviction in Washington.

After the agreement was signed, the Allens turned in their rent one day past the agreed deadline. In court documents, attorneys for the Allens said the due date came as Kathleen Allen was hospitalized and another family member died.

Princeton rejected the day-late payment and moved in court for an immediate writ of restitution – an eviction order that requires tenants to be out within three to five days.

Attorneys for the Allens would go on to argue that the eviction violated their tenants’ rights, including their right to a 14-day notice for failure to pay rent, their right to make up for a missed payment within two weeks, their right to mediation, and their right to a repayment plan.

Because of this, their attorneys argued, the eviction should be considered void.

As for the waiver clause in the settlement – that said the “parties forego” the usual guidelines for eviction – the appeals court ruled that it does not hold. “Such a provision simply cannot be reconciled with” the state’s landlord-tenant laws, appeals court Judge Erik Price wrote.

What’s next

Wolff, the Allens’ attorney, argued that if it weren’t for the settlement agreement language, his clients would not have been evicted. He noted that it’s common for such agreements to include language that allows landlords to evict tenants for even minor violations.

Based on the appeals court ruling, it’s possible Aaron Allen could return to her old apartment. But Wolff said it is unclear what the next steps might be, especially if the case remains caught up in court. Kathleen Allen died after the lawsuit was filed.

Meanwhile, Mazzeo wrote in Princeton’s motion for reconsideration that most landlords are already shying away from settlement agreements because of the legal uncertainty.

“No one can predict what courts of appeal will do next, given this opinion, so the issue is just being completely avoided,” he wrote.

The company is also arguing in its request that the 2021 law at the center of the disagreement is vague and unconstitutional in the first place.

Wolff said that he hopes landlords and tenants will continue to use settlement agreements to avoid eviction proceedings, but without renters having to sign away their rights.

“We’re not interested in a world where tenants and landlords aren’t resolving disputes through settlements,” he said. “But it’s incumbent on both sides to do the good work.”

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