The ins and outs of marina evictions

Q: I live aboard my boat in a private marina in Northern California, and the owner has asked me to manage the day to day operations of the marina. My job duties include the collection of monthly slip rent, but after starting the job I learned that most of the tenants are months behind in their rental payments. All of the tenants have signed a written slip rental agreement but I don’t really see anything in the document that talks about the eviction procedure. Can I just tow the delinquent boats out of the marina, or does unpaid slip rent give rise to a maritime lien that would require me to go to Federal Court for an eviction? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

A: Marina slip rental agreements are subject to federal admiralty jurisdiction and are generally characterized as a form of commercial tenancy, even if the boat owner lives aboard the boat. Notwithstanding the federal jurisdiction, state law remedies are available under many circumstances. The tenancy falls somewhere between a storage facility and a space rental at a mobile home park, but unlike those two arrangements California law does not specifically address a marina tenancy.

As a commercial tenancy, the consumer protections that are available to residential tenants are generally not available to marina tenants. A Federal District Court addressed this in 1979 when it held that “The right to dock one’s boat at a particular berth or marina cannot be equated with the right to decent low-cost housing even if one chooses to live aboard the boat.” A month to month slip lease may therefore be terminated – without cause – on 30 days notice.

The characterization of a slip rental as a commercial lease may sound favorable to the marina owner, but the eviction of a delinquent boat owner can be very complicated.

A marina operator will of course pursue the collection of delinquent slip rental payments, but the larger concern is often the task of actually evicting or removing a boat from its slip. Unlike a conventional residential or office tenancy, it is not possible to simply throw a marina tenant out on the street. The boat cannot be set adrift, and ironically, the most logical place to store an evicted vessel is often in the slip that it was evicted from. The eviction process does not, by itself, have any effect on the title of the boat and as such the boat owner’s rights cannot be ignored. The problems and strategies confronted by any marina operator must be resolved with these limitations in mind.

California’s “Boaters Lien Law,” codified in sections 500 through 509 the Harbors and Navigation Code, provides guidance for the eviction of a boat from a marina, but it is applicable only to DMV registered vessels. The law provides for a private lien sale to be conducted with the assistance and guidance of the Department of Motor Vehicles, and after the boat is sold the new owner will take possession.  It is a very effective solution for a marina with a delinquent tenant.

Unfortunately the Boaters Lien Law procedure is available only for DMV registered boats.  And, since most boats that are over 35 feet in length are documented with the U.S. Coast Guard, the DMV procedure may not provide much help for a marina with larger boats in its slips.

A breach of a marina tenancy agreement for a documented vessel will give rise to a maritime lien under the Federal Maritime Lien Act (46 USC sec. 31342 et seq.). The FMLA provides an extremely powerful enforcement mechanism through an “in rem” action against the vessel in Federal Court. This procedure calls for the U.S. Marshals to take the boat into custody through a “civil arrest,” which takes place without any warning to the boat owner. The in rem proceeding culminates in a public auction conducted by the Marshals, where the boat is sold under the supervision of the District Court. The process is generally very efficient and orderly, but as we have discussed many times in this column, a vessel arrest is a very expensive procedure and as such it may not be a realistic option for a small marina.

A small marina may instead want to pursue an eviction through an unlawful detainer action in state court. A slip rental agreement is a maritime contract that is subject to federal admiralty jurisdiction, but state law unlawful detainer procedures are available for the eviction of both state and federally registered boats. Unfortunately, this procedure gives rise to the “where can we put the boat” question. A successful unlawful detainer proceeding will lead to a monetary judgment against the tenant for the delinquent slip rental, and a court order instructing the sheriff to evict the tenant. The problem here is that, in most cases, the local sheriff or port police agency may not have an impound facility, and they cannot simply set the boat adrift. Nonetheless, if local law enforcement for a marina can accommodate an evicted boat at an impound dock, this is probably the best bet for someone like our reader. Regardless, he should consult a local maritime attorney for more specific advice relating to each of the boats that he is concerned about.

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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