Property owners in California have been handed a huge victory with a ruling by the California Court of Appeals ensuring that hearings for citizens who challenge tax assessments or penalty decisions be “fair.”

It seems Alameda County fought in court so it wouldn’t have to be.

But the court determined the “fairness of the procedure used to resolve citations generally is a matter of statewide concern.”

“[J]ust as a state has an interest in securing ‘basic rights and protections’ to public employees, it also has an interest in protecting the basic rights of property owners,” the court said.

The case has been fought by the Pacific Legal Foundation.

PLF attorney Jonathan Wood said the case emerged when Thomas Lippman, who owns rental property, was cited by Oakland’s Building Services Division for more than $10,000 worth of alleged building code violations.

He decided to challenge and found “the only person who can hear appeals is appointed by Building Services … not surprisingly, the agency’s hearing officer rubber-stamped the citations.”

That will change with the court’s decision, which PLF called “a welcome vindication of the basic rights of property owners.”

Pacific Legal explained that for years, Oakland “has treated small property owners as a piggy bank, demanding ever growing penalties for minor, alleged building code violations and denying property owners any legitimate opportunity to defend themselves.”

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“Things got so bad that Alameda County issued a grand jury report condemning the city’s code enforcement agency for creating an ‘atmosphere of hostility and intimidation toward property owners.'”

The investigative panel discovered “inspectors would issue inconsistent findings: one inspector would clear a property only to have another declare trivial violations.”

“Once a violation was declared, property owners were at the mercy of the enforcement agency, the grand jury found. Property owners had no right to a fair and impartial appeal. If a notice of violation was in error, the property owner’s only recourse was to plead with the inspector to withdraw it. When the inspector inevitably declined, the property owner’s last resort was to ask the inspector’s supervisor to overrule her. But that usually proved futile because inspectors did not keep adequate records to allow that review and, even when they did, the supervisor had an incentive to deny reconsideration: the agency profited immensely from the fees charged for finding violations.”

Lippman’s penalties totaled more than $12,000 for “trivial alleged violations” when he fought back.

The citations noted problems as minor as “a weed growing through a crack in the sidewalk.”

He promptly fixed that, but what he didn’t know was that two inspectors each had cited him for the weed, so while one complaint was resolved, “fees were racking up” on the second,” eventually totaling $2,500.

Then Lippman tried to evict a tenant who stopped paying rent, and the tenant “staged several building code violations by kicking in vents, pulling down smoke detectors, and damaging the property.”

Lippman promptly fixed all the damage and was handed a tab for $10,000, with no right to contest.

The city’s appeal process went only to an officer appointed by the city.

In Lippman’s case, the hearing officer “abruptly cut him off, promising that she would let him present his defense later.”

“But she didn’t,” PLF reported.

“Instead, she closed the hearing without ever giving Lippman a chance to make his case and then, predictably, ruled against him,” the report said.

The result was the court case in which Lippman won a ruling that said Oakland “must establish an independent board or agency to hear appeals or give Lippman an appeal to the city council.”

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