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Can I Be Evicted from My Marina in Retaliation for Court Testimony?

I have a question about a boat owner’s rights in connection with a marina eviction. I know you have addressed this in one or two prior installments of your column, but this is a pretty unusual story. Two months ago, I was asked to testify at a deposition in a wrongful termination lawsuit involving a former employee of my marina. The facts of that case are not important here, but I will say that I testified on behalf of the employee who was fired, and the marina management wasn’t very happy about it. Yesterday I was given 30 days’ notice to vacate my slip and was advised that the marina would start eviction proceedings if I was not out of my slip by that date. The notice did not give a reason for the eviction and the manager of the marina won’t talk to me about it. I have always paid my slip rent right on time, so I am sure that they are evicting me because I testified against them. I know from your previous articles that I don’t have a lot of rights as a marina tenant, but this seems especially egregious. Do I have any legal recourse at all in a case like this?
As noted by our reader, marina tenants do not enjoy the protections that are commonly understood to apply to the rental of an apartment or other residence. He has, however, identified one of the few circumstances where a marina tenant cannot be summarily evicted.            

Understanding the rules that govern a marina tenancy must start with an understanding of exactly what is being rented. A boat owner is renting a patch of water in which to park his or her boat. As such, even if a boat is characterized as a structure or a dwelling, it is not a rented structure or dwelling. It is owned by the boat owner, who is simply renting a parking space in a marina.

A marina tenancy is therefore similar to a mobile home park tenancy, where the residents own their trailers but are renting a parking space. This unique arrangement is recognized in California under a special body of law called the “Mobile Home Residency Law” (Cal. Civil Code sec. 798). The law provides many of the same protections enjoyed by renters of a conventional dwelling, while recognizing the unique circumstance where the home itself is not being rented.            

Notwithstanding the similarity between a marina tenancy and a mobile home park tenancy, the Mobile Home Residency Law does not extend to marinas, and there is no similar provision in California law that would specifically address a marina tenancy. Keep in mind that liveaboard boaters represent a relatively small fraction of all marina tenancies, while virtually all mobile home owners live in their mobile homes. As such, we are not likely to see a similar law enacted for boat owners.            

So, with the relatively unregulated nature of a marina tenancy as a foundation, let’s take a look at our reader’s case.            

Our reader is apparently being evicted solely for his participation in a legal proceeding that had no direct relationship to his slip rental agreement in the marina. Based on the facts that he has provided, he may be the target of a “retaliatory eviction” — which is, in fact, prohibited in California and in most other states.            

California Civil Code sec. 1942.5(c) prohibits any lessor from evicting a tenant, or increasing rent, decreasing services or threatening any of those acts for the purpose of retaliating against the lessee because he or she has lawfully and peaceably exercised any rights under the law. Our reader’s testimony at the deposition would absolutely fall within the “peaceable exercise” of a right — and, as such, eviction for this reason is expressly prohibited.            

The penalties against a lessor in a lawsuit for retaliatory eviction are substantial, and they may include an award of punitive damages against the lessor and attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party in the lawsuit.            

There is a little ambiguity within the statute on the question of whether the prohibition against retaliatory eviction is limited to a “dwelling unit,” which would thereby exclude a marina tenancy since, as noted above, the rented slip is essentially just a parking space. However, the scope of the law is discussed in another statute (Civil Code sec. 1940(d)), which effectively prohibits retaliatory evictions in any lessor/lessee relationship.            

Marina tenancies are a complicated hybrid of federal maritime law and state lessor/lessee law. Retaliatory evictions are rare, and the question of whether a retaliatory eviction took place is often complicated by the question of whether the tenant boat owner was in default of some other provision of the slip rental agreement.            

Our reader appears to have a pretty solid claim, and he should explore it further. For others, it may be different. These questions must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, and an attorney who is an expert in this area of law should always be consulted.

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