Major Decisions Loom in a Landmark Lawsuit Over Homelessness in Los Angeles

As a firebrand judge considers broad action to house the homeless, L.A. County requests to be dropped from a federal suit regarding its alleged mismanagement of the crisis

As a federal judge mulls a potentially historic move in an already headline-grabbing lawsuit over Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis, the County of Los Angeles has launched a formal effort to rid itself of the case entirely.

A motion to dismiss filed Monday cites what lawyers for the county describe as “tremendous efforts to support people experiencing homelessness.”

It asks U.S. District Judge David O. Carter to dismiss the county from the case, which would leave only the city as a defendant, and could set the stage for a settlement. It also calls a possible court injunction “broad and unmanageable.”

“Complex policy questions about how to address homelessness must be resolved by the County’s elected governing body, the Board of Supervisors,” the 33-page motion says. “This lawsuit seeks to intrude upon the County’s legislative process based on untenable legal theories.”

Filed in March 2020, the lawsuit was brought by a group of downtown residents and business owners who accuse the city and county of allowing the population of unhoused people to grow uncontrollably while squandering tax money meant to help. Carter took over the case after overseeing a similar lawsuit in Orange County that helped established a new social services and shelter network.

judge david o. carter
In February 2018, Judge David O. Carter Judge David O. Carter addresses reporters and parties on both sides of a lawsuit regarding homelessness in Orange County

Jeff Gritchen/OC Register via Getty Images

The county’s dismissal bid comes at a precarious time in the now year-old legal saga: Carter is considering an expansive legal maneuver that could give him broad power over city services. Or at least, that’s what the judge requested legal briefs on in February as he also called a short-notice but high-profile hearing at the Downtown Women’s Center on Skid Row, spurred by a dust-up over a plan to shelter women in tents in the parking lot during a rainstorm.

He’s since received approximately ten briefs and letters from attorneys for various groups, including United Way Greater Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Business Council, and the Central City Association of Los Angeles.

But Carter’s also facing an April 15 deadline in a ten-month-old agreement between the city and county to provide 5,300 new shelter beds, then another 700 within the next eight months. City and county officials have claimed significant progress, and if they keep their promises, Carter could be less likely to take drastic action.

The judge’s looming decision comes amid unprecedented police enforcement in Echo Park Lake that relocated unhoused people from the park last week. While Carter has joined City Council members Bob Blumenfield and Mike Bonin for enforcement actions in their San Fernando Valley and Venice districts, the Echo Park Lake enforcement came at the direction of the councilman for the area, Mitch O’Farrell, and Carter wasn’t involved.

The multi-day enforcement, which included a huge presence of uniformed officers along with social services workers, has not yet been mentioned in official court filings in the lawsuit, and Carter hasn’t publicly weighed in. But the firebrand judge, who turned 77 last Sunday, has always pushed a humanitarian approach to homelessness over law enforcement.

In Los Angeles, he sees the sprawling bureaucracy of homeless services as a pressing problem, and his threat to wield the court’s power in a rare and broad fashion stems from mounting hostility over it.

City and county officials also have demonstrated a misunderstanding of the legal difference between what Carter’s call for briefs considers and the common legal agreement known as a consent decree, which the judge has made a standard part of homeless-related lawsuit settlements in his home base of Orange County.

As the judge explained to Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis during the February 4 Skid Row hearing, the legal issue Carter’s currently mulling doesn’t involve settlements and consent decrees. A consent decree involves negotiation and agreement on the scope of oversight, and the judge is trying to determine what he can do if one can’t be reached.

“What we’re exploring now is far different than that,” Carter told Solis after the supervisor said she’d like to avoid a consent decree.

The judge’s order referenced two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases: the 2011 affirmation of another federal judge’s order that California greatly reduce its prison population, and the 1954 school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, which involved far-reaching efforts by a federal judge to desegregate the south amid government opposition. Carter says he’s trying to ascertain whether the city has been deliberately indifferent in not providing shelter or mental health services, and whether city policies have been intended to create Skid Row as a gathering place for minorities.

While some L.A. politicians only recently started discussing the possibility of a decree, it’s always been on the table because Carter is approaching the case similar to how he approached a lawsuit over Orange County homelessness that led to ongoing consent decrees with approximately 20 Orange County cities, as well as with Whittier and Bellflower in Los Angeles County. The decrees are basically legal methods to ensure settlements are being met.

“It’s what our goal has always been, whether you call it a consent decree or a settlement agreement. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone,” Elizabeth Mitchell, an attorney for the plaintiff group L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, said in an interview.

Still, some L.A. officials have joined Solis in objecting to a consent decree, portraying it as a power grab by Carter. Others, including City Attorney and mayoral hopeful Mike Feuer are more clear: they don’t want Carter assuming any authority that otherwise could be in the hands of elected officials.

“I’m not a big fan of abdicating responsibility to a federal judge. I think that we should be able to rise to the challenge ourselves,” Feuer said during the Los Angeles Business Council’s annual Mayoral Housing, Transportation, and Jobs Summit in February.

But Feuer also emphasized that a consent decree “is just a settlement,” while Councilman Kevin DeLeon said one without a plan would be “a recipe for failure.”

“We need a real concrete plan with real benchmarks,” DeLeon said.

Councilman Bonin, meanwhile, said he believes a consent decree is “inevitable” and is better than a broader action by Carter.

“Part of the reason I advocate for a consent decree is we have more control,” Bonin said.

Mitchell said the differing opinions about a decree from L.A. city and county politicians “underscores the need for a clear plan and a clear action.”

She opposes the county’s motion to dismiss, calling it “ridiculous.”

“All you have to do is take a walk down 5th and San Pedro to know they’re certainly not doing enough,” Mitchell said.

The county “has a real opportunity to partner with us, with the city, with the county and with Judge Carter,” Mitchell said. “Instead, they’re just going back to their old tricks.”

She’s preparing to ask Carter to issue a preliminary injunction requiring the addition of thousands of beds for unhoused people, but she’s first trying to negotiate a settlement with the city that would avoid the broader action Carter is considering.

“If it becomes clear that that is not going to happen, then we will be filing the preliminary injunction and we will be asking for immediate court intervention,” Mitchell said.

Meghann M. Cuniff is a freelance journalist focused on legal affairs. Shes on Twitter @meghanncuniff.

RELATED: Inside a Judge’s Controversial Crusade to Solve Homelessness in L.A.

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