Retaliatory evictions be damned

Q: My wife and I recently received a 30-day notice of termination from our marina. The notice did not state a cause, but the harbormaster later admitted that we were suspected as illegal liveaboards, or “sneak-aboards” (which we are not). My wife was upset and went to talk to him, but when he refused to allow us an extra month, my wife cursed at him and walked out of the office. Two hours later he handed her a 5-day notice, which stated we were being evicted for cause because he expects staff to be treated with dignity and respect and my wife’s “unreasonable behavior” constitutes a breach of the rental agreement. Do we have any recourse under these circumstances?

A: What’s the world coming to when you’re not allowed to use bad language around boats? Actually we should not make light of our reader’s dilemma. Eviction is an extremely disruptive process, especially in a maritime context since the landlord holds almost all the cards.

Understanding the rules governing a marina tenancy must start with an understanding of exactly what is being rented. A boat owner is renting a patch of water in which to park his or her boat. As such, the boat itself is not being rented, and the boat owner is simply renting a parking space in a marina.

A marina tenancy is, therefore, similar to a mobile home park, where the residents own their trailers but are renting a parking space. This unique arrangement is recognized in California under a special body of law called the “Mobile Home Residency Law” (Cal. Civil Code sec. 798). But there are no similar laws on the books in California to protect marina tenants. As such, under most circumstances a marina tenancy is treated like a commercial lease agreement.

So let’s take a look at our reader’s case. He received two eviction notices: A 30-day notice, followed shortly thereafter by a 5-day notice. Which of these is effective?

Either party, upon 30 days notice, may always terminate a month-to-month commercial lease – unless the lease calls for a different arrangement. Termination may be without cause – again by either party. So in our reader’s case, the 30-day notice was effective, and upon receipt of that notice he should have started the process of finding new dock space for his boat.

The 5-day notice is another story, for several reasons. First, it was given in retaliation for a relatively minor infraction that appears to have been mischaracterized by the harbormaster as a breach of the lease. The lease may have included language to require tenants to behave themselves, but a brief outburst of the kind described by our reader would not rise to that level.

Based on the facts he has provided, he may be the target of a “retaliatory eviction,” which is in fact prohibited in California and in most other states.

California Civil Code sec. 1942.5(c) prohibits any lessor from evicting a tenant, or increasing rent, decreasing services, or threatening any of those acts for the purpose of retaliating against the lessee because he or she has lawfully and peaceably exercised any rights under the law. Complaining about a landlord’s eviction order is an exercise of such a right, and as noted above a brief outburst is unlikely to be characterized as a breach of the peace.

There is a little ambiguity within the statute on the question of whether it would apply to a marina eviction, since it expressly refers to a “dwelling unit.” But the scope of the law is discussed in another statute (Civil Code sec. 1940(d)), which effectively prohibits retaliatory evictions in any lessor-lessee relationship.

There is also the question of whether the original 30-day termination preempts the 5-day notice. Under the circumstances of this case, the 30-day notice will remain effective. As noted above, a month-to-month lease may be terminated upon 30 days notice, without cause. A 5-day notice, however, is only effective upon a showing of good cause, such as failure to pay rent or another clear breach of a lease provision.

In the end, our reader and his landlord are arguing about the difference between a 30-day notice and a 5-day notice, which amounts to a 25-day window. That time window will pass quickly, and their dispute may well be over before the expiration of that window. Our reader’s best solution is to advise his landlord he will leave as soon a possible, regardless of which notice is effective, and actively search for a new marina.

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (weilmaritime.com) in Long Beach. He is an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law at Loyola University Law School, a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-438-8149 or at dweil@weilmaritime.com. 

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