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City of Seattle
Ed Murray, Mayor

SUBJECT: Court upholds Seattle Municipal Court's authority to levy fines above $75,000

10/12/2011  4:00:00 PM
Kimberly Mills  (206) 684-8602

The imposition of $615,000 in penalties on a Seattle landlord for housing code violations has been affirmed by the Washington Court of Appeals, Division One.

The central question in the appeal by Hugh and Martha Sisley was whether judges in two separate trials in Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) properly levied penalties exceeding $75,000, which is the limit for civil claims in Washington’s district courts. A King County Superior Court judge had found no issue with the nature of the housing code violations but said SMC could not impose fees over $75,000.

“The City has the right to enforce its ordinance,” the three-judge appeals panel ruled unanimously. “To superimpose the district court jurisdiction limit upon municipal code enforcement proceedings is to frustrate the City’s enforcement scheme and improperly undermine the power granted to the City by the legislature.”

The ruling applies to a wide variety of civil violations of City code, including those brought by the Department of Planning and Development, Department of Transportation and Seattle Public Utilities.

Karen White, DPD Code Compliance Director, applauded the ruling as “very important to the City’s ability to enforce its codes. When someone won’t correct code violations repeatedly, having the ability to collect large enough monetary penalties is essential. Without this tool, there is no deterrence to continuing to violate city laws, no consequence for failing to cure conditions that can threaten someone’s health or safety or that can bring down a whole neighborhood.”

White was echoed by City Attorney Pete Holmes: “The appellate court’s decision reinforces the City’s ability to make it more expensive to be a slumlord than to comply with the Seattle Municipal Code. This is a victory for good government and for Seattle’s neighborhoods.”

DPD has had close to 200 code enforcement cases relating to Sisley properties dating to the 1980s. The cases included housing code violations, exterior maintenance and junk storage violations, emergency orders, and unfit vacant buildings subject to demolition. More than 25 cases against Hugh Sisley have been filed in Municipal Court to gain compliance with City codes.

Under City code, the maximum penalties that can be assessed for housing violations are $150 per day for violations in the unit for the first 10 days, and $500 per day thereafter. For violations in the common areas, the penalty is $150 per day for the first 10 days, and $500 per day thereafter.

The two Sisley properties at issue are at 6515 16th Ave. NE and 6317 15th Ave. E. They are single-family homes that had been sectioned off and rented as guest rooms.

At the 16th Ave location, according to court testimony, a young man agreed to rent a room in the house (the tenants shared the common areas including the bathroom and the kitchen). He paid a $500 security deposit and agreed to pay $500 per month rent. After about three months, the tenant complained of a severe ant infestation in his bedroom. The manager refused to have the room exterminated. The tenant contacted DPD for assistance, which resulted in an inspection of the tenant's room and the common areas. During the inspection 16 other housing code violations were observed (including deteriorated stairs, missing handrails, lack of a permanent heat source, missing smoke detectors and broken wall coverings). The ant infestation made the room unlivable and the tenant was forced to move in with friends. The tenant asked for the return of his $500 security deposit, but was refused.

The Sisleys were issued a Notice of Violation and ordered to correct the violations by April 10, 2008. Under the code, penalties continue to accrue until the violator allows a reinspection to confirm compliance. The Sisleys refused to allow a reinspection of the property. At the time of trial the property was out of compliance for 406 days. Municipal Court Judge Jean Rietschel, now a King County Superior Court judge, assessed a penalty in an amount less than the maximum. She ordered the Sisleys pay: *$100 per day for violations in the unit the first 10 days, and $300 per day thereafter and *$100 per day for violations in the common areas the first 10 days, and $300 per day thereafter The judgment was for $247,400.

At the other property -- 6317 15th Ave. E. – a young man entered into a rental agreement and paid $1,000 for first and last month's rent to rent one of four bedrooms at the home. The bedroom was supposed to have a functioning toilet/shower in the room. He was to share the common areas with the other tenants in the house. Before moving his belongings into the house, the tenant discovered that six of eight windows in his room were broken (some were boarded up) and there was a hole in the wall stuffed with newspaper to cover electrical wiring. The tenant asked that repairs be made or his $1,000 be returned. The Sisleys' manager refused to return any portion of the money paid. The tenant called DPD for assistance ; the inspectors found 26 housing code violations (including a non-functioning toilet and shower in the tenant's room, holes in the front door, exposed electrical wiring, broken and peeling wall and ceiling covers, broken and boarded up windows, and an electrical cord taped to an outlet in the hallway providing power to a bedroom).

DPD issued an Notice of Violation in the bedroom unit and the common areas, requiring compliance by Aug. 7, 2008. The Sisleys again refused to allow a reinspection to confirm compliance. At the time of trial the property had been out of compliance for 375 days. The Court determined that there were no mitigating factors and imposed the maximum penalty and issued a judgment in the amount of $368,000.

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