Spinks v. Apartments

Decision Date04 March 2009
Docket NumberNo. H031468.,H031468.
Citation171 Cal.App.4th 1004,90 Cal.Rptr.3d 453
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesLori SPINKS, Plaintiff and Appellant,v.EQUITY RESIDENTIAL BRIARWOOD APARTMENTS et al., Defendants and Respondents.


Law Offices of Panos Lagos, Panos Lagos, Oakland, Law Office of Leah Ellen Hess, Leah Ellen Hess, for Appellant.Prindle, Decker & Amaro, Michael L. Amaro, Roger Derek Classen, Kristie M. Kawakami, Long Beach, for Respondents.McADAMS, J.

This appeal follows the entry of defense summary judgment. The defendants are the landlords of an apartment complex where the plaintiff resided, under a lease entered into by her Ohio employer. The employer terminated the plaintiff's employment following an industrial injury, and then it directed the defendants to change the locks on the plaintiff's apartment unit. They complied, thereby causing the plaintiff to leave her residence. The plaintiff then instituted this litigation against the landlords alone. Asserting that she was an intended third party beneficiary of the lease, the plaintiff alleged 12 causes of action, including contract, tort, and statutory claims. The trial court granted the defendants summary judgment on all causes of action, ruling that the plaintiff was not an intended beneficiary of the lease and thus not the defendants' tenant. The court also awarded the defendants their costs of suit, including statutory attorney fees as the prevailing parties.

We reverse the judgment and the fee award. As we shall explain, defense summary judgment on the contract claims is precluded, because the question of plaintiff's status as an intended third party beneficiary of the lease presents triable issues of fact. Summary judgment on the remaining claims is precluded, because of triable issues on the question of whether the defendants improperly disturbed the plaintiff's peaceful possession through resort to impermissible self-help. Reversal of the summary judgment means that the defendants are no longer the prevailing parties; the award of costs and fees in their favor thus cannot stand.


The plaintiff in this action is Lori Spinks. The defendants are EQR–Briarwood, a California limited partnership, and Equity Residential Properties Management Corp. Defendants own and operate Briarwood Apartment Homes in Sunnyvale, California, where plaintiff resided in late 2004 and early 2005.

On October 11, 2004, plaintiff entered into a written employment agreement to work for Mobile Medical Staffing, LLC (Mobile). In the form agreement, the employee is referred to as “Traveler.” The employer, Mobile, is located in Dayton, Ohio. In the notice provision of the employment agreement, plaintiff listed an address in Austin, Texas. Plaintiff and Mobile entered into the employment agreement in Louisiana.

The employment agreement called for plaintiff to undertake a 13–week staffing assignment at Stanford University Health Sciences in California. The starting date of the assignment was October 25, 2004.

As part of the employment agreement, plaintiff and Mobile also entered into a housing agreement, which stated that plaintiff would “be housed individually in housing provided by” the employer. Under the housing agreement, only the “spouse and minor children shall be allowed to reside” with the employee. The contract calls for the housing benefit to start at least two days before the work assignment begins. It terminates two days after the assignment ends, under this provision: “Traveler must vacate the housing within 48 hours of the termination date of his/her assignment.” The housing agreement further states: “In the event that Traveler breaches this Agreement, [Mobile] shall have the right to initiate eviction proceeding[s] against Traveler.”

On October 15, 2004, Mobile entered into a lease agreement with defendants. As provided in the form lease, Mobile rented Apartment 502 in the Briarwood complex for a 13–week period commencing October 20, 2004. In the space for designating “Residents,” the lease names “Corporate Mobile Medical Staff.” The nearby space for designating “Occupants” is left blank.

On the same date as the lease was executed, Mobile's director signed a “Letter of Responsibility,” which was sent to defendants. In that letter, plaintiff is identified by name as the “Occupant” of the unit. The letter begins: “This is to serve as a Letter of Responsibility for the above named employee, who will reside at Briarwood Apartment Homes, ... Apt. 502, ... move in date 10/22/04.” After assuming responsibility for specified items, the letter concludes: “The agreement will remain in effect for the duration of occupancy by our employee.”

In late October 2004, plaintiff moved into Apartment 502. The apartment was furnished with furniture rented by Mobile. Plaintiff completed a “Corporate Occupant Application” and a “move-in inspection form” at defendants' request. She was “provided with a resident handbook spelling out rules to be followed by tenants at the property.”

In December 2004, plaintiff's work assignment at Stanford was extended for another 13 weeks. The lease term likewise was extended for 13 weeks, to run through May 2, 2005. In the lease extension, plaintiff was identified by name as the occupant of the apartment.

On January 6, 2005, plaintiff was seriously injured at work. She was unable to return to full duty. Plaintiff underwent reconstructive surgery on her hand the following month.

By letter dated February 17, 2005, Mobile notified plaintiff that it would “no longer be providing the housing, utilities, furniture, nor automobile” that she was then using. Plaintiff received Mobile's letter on or about February 21, 2005, when she returned home from the hospital following her surgery. The letter advised: We will notify PG & E to turn off the utilities as of Monday February 21, 2005. We will instruct Brooks Furniture to ‘pick up’ the furniture on February 22 or 23, 2005. We have notified the landlord that our staffing agreement has concluded for this assignment and we will no longer be paying the rent.”

Plaintiff went to defendants' on-site manager to discuss the letter, “upset ... that they were going to turn off her electricity.” The manager “informed her that that's not going to happen because in the state of California ... you can't shut someone's electricity off in order to make them get out of an apartment.” Mobile's representative was given the same information.

After learning that Mobile would not be allowed to turn off the electricity, its representative “asked if he could request to have the locks changed.” Defendants' on-site manager responded that she would need a work order in order to do that. Mobile thereafter “faxed” a letter dated February 21, 2005, informing defendants of “the change of status of apartment 502” and making this request: “Please change the locks on the above unit immediately.”

To carry out Mobile's request, defendants' on-site manager “created a work order for maintenance staff to change the locks to Plaintiff's apartment.” The manager “informed Plaintiff that the lock would be changed.” Plaintiff was “distraught” at the news. Plaintiff told the manager “that she was seriously injured and under doctors' orders to use her arm as little as possible. She informed them that she had been terminated from her employment and had no[ ] other place to reside.”

On February 22, 2005, the furniture was removed from the apartment by the furniture rental company. Plaintiff let the movers in. But Mobile had previously authorized defendants to release keys to the furniture rental company, so that it could remove the furniture.

Later that afternoon, the locks on the apartment were changed by defendants' employee. By that time, plaintiff had packed her belongings but she was “still moving some boxes of stuff.” Defendants' on-site manager told plaintiff that she was sorry, and to please leave the keys with the guy changing the locks.”


In June 2005, plaintiff instituted this action against defendants. Plaintiff asserted that she was a third party beneficiary of the lease and the intended and actual occupant of the apartment. As a result, plaintiff alleged, defendants owed her a duty to comply with California law governing landlord-tenant relationships, which they breached by ousting her from possession of the apartment. Plaintiff asserted 12 causes of action against defendants: three contract claims, seven causes of action sounding in tort, and two statutory claims.1

After its demurrer was overruled, defendant EQR–Briarwood answered the complaint, interposing a general denial and 22 affirmative defenses. The affirmative defenses included consent, abandonment, lack of privity of contract, and plaintiff's status as a mere licensee.

Defense Motion for Summary Judgment

In November 2006, both defendants moved for summary judgment, or, in the alternative, for summary adjudication. Articulating the essence of their position, defendants argued: Plaintiff cannot establish that she is a tenant of Defendants or an intended third party beneficiary to the lease agreement for the subject apartment and there was no breach ... of any duty or obligation owed to her.”

Plaintiff filed written opposition to the motion, which included additional factual assertions as well as formal evidentiary objections. In support of her contention that she was a third-party beneficiary, plaintiff asserted: “The central purpose of the Lease was to provide a residence for Plaintiff Lori Spinks.” Beyond that, she argued: “The lease clearly establishes tenancy status for Plaintiff as a third-party beneficiary.” Moreover, plaintiff urged, statutory and tort liability would attach even if she were a mere occupant, rather than a tenant.

In reply, defendants objected to plaintiff's purported additional material facts as irrelevant, lacking the...

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