I have lived aboard a small motor yacht in a marina in Northern California for over five years. During that time, I paid my rent on time and complied with all of the marina rules, but there have been excessive increases in slip fees every year. The docks are now being replaced and they want to move me to a larger slip, which will of course increase my rent. To make matters worse, during this pandemic they started charging me for utilities. I was under the impression that tenants are protected while the state-wide “stay at home” orders are still in place. Can I sue the marina for violating these tenant protection laws?
The “marina eviction” question continues to rear its head as we work our way through the pandemic and boat owners find it harder and harder to keep up with their monthly obligations. We first addressed this question in July (“Ask a Maritime Attorney: Tenant Protection Laws and Covid-19,” The Log, July 16, 2020), when we found little hope for boat owners facing a marina eviction. We face many of the same obstacles today.
The most significant problem for boat owners facing eviction arises from the nature of the relationship between a boat owner and a marina. A boat owner is not renting his or her home from the marina, even if they live aboard the boat. Instead, they own the boat and they are simply renting a parking space. They are being evicted from their parking space – not from their home.
Complicating the issue even further, marina slip rental agreements are maritime contracts that are subject to federal admiralty jurisdiction and federal law. A default of a slip rental agreement may be enforced by filing a lawsuit in federal court and having the boat seized or arrested by Federal Marshals. This is a very powerful tool for a marina operator, but it is also very expensive and as such it is rarely used to foreclose on a boat that is a few months late on slip rental payments.
A marina operator may consider a simple eviction, using the unlawful detainer tools that are available for the eviction of an apartment tenant. An unlawful detainer action in state court requires the cooperation of the local harbor patrol or other waterfront law-enforcement to impound the boat after it is removed from the marina, but the procedure is a fraction of the cost of an arrest proceeding in federal court.
When we looked at unlawful detainer actions in July, we found a little bit of sunshine for boat owners facing a marina eviction. The California Judicial Council had enacted an emergency rule which effectively placed a moratorium on evictions in California courts. The Rule was adopted in April and it prevented courts from issuing a summons in an eviction case or entering a default judgment. This effectively froze all eviction cases and, while it was not intended to help boat owners, it did remove the unlawful detainer option for marina operators seeking to evict a boat owner. But that rule expired on September 1st and landlords are again free to seek eviction orders in a court proceeding.
With the expiration of the “freeze” on the issuance of eviction orders in Court proceedings, the California legislature looked at other tools for strengthening its COVID-related tenant protection laws. Most notable among these new protections is AB3088, the “Tenant, Homeowner, and Small Landlord Relief and Stabilization Act of 2020.” This law was enacted in September and it provides very specific protections for tenants and for certain landlords who suffer COVID-related economic hardship. But once again its protections are directed at owners and renters of residential real property, and there is no provision of the law that concerns the operators or tenants of a marina.
So the bottom line is that we have no good news for boat owners seeking to avoid eviction based upon COVID-related economic hardship. The only advice that we can offer is to work with your marina manager, explain your specific hardship, and suggest a plan for working through it.
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 (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com, or via email at email@example.com.