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Court blocks eviction of North Beach senior

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A state appeals court in San Francisco has overturned a judgment allowing the eviction of an 83-year-old man who has lived in a cottage in the North Beach district of the city for more than 30 years.

Diego De Leo’s landlord, Martin Coyne, sought in 2016 to evict him by invoking the state’s Ellis Act, which allows owners to go out of the rental business if they withdraw all units on a property from the rental market.

At a Superior Court trial in 2016, a civil jury ruled by a 9-3 vote that Coyne had a good-faith intention to leave the rental market and could therefore evict De Leo.

But in a decision issued on Monday, a three-judge Court of Appeal set aside that verdict. It said De Leo should have been allowed to present evidence on his claim that another tenant on the property received a sham ownership deal, allegedly indicating that Coyne did not have a good-faith intent to go out of rental business.

The ruling clears the way for a new Superior Court eviction trial, also known as an unlawful detainer proceeding, in which De Leo will be able to present the alleged evidence.

Steve Collier, a lawyer for De Leo, said he expects the trial to take place in several months.

The three-bedroom cottage, for which De Leo paid $800 in monthly rent, is one of four residential units on Coyne’s property on Chestnut Street. The others are in a three-unit apartment building.

The apartment tenant, Maria Esclamado, was an employee of Coyne. He gave her a 10 percent ownership interest in 2013, but did not require a down payment and charged her only monthly interest payments in approximately the same amount as the $1,600 rent she had previously paid for the lower apartment unit. She moved to another state in 2015 and transferred the property interest back to Coyne.

The trial judge had barred evidence of the transaction on the ground that it was only slightly relevant and could confuse jurors.

But the appeals court panel said the alleged evidence “went to the heart” of the question of whether Coyne was allowed to evict De Leo.

Under an agreement between the two sides, De Leo, a former bricklayer who now writes poetry, has been allowed to live in the studio-like lower unit of the apartment building during his appeal of the trial court verdict, Collier said.

Coyne’s lawyer was not immediately available for comment.

Collier, who works with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, said an appeals court reversal of a trial court ruling allowing an eviction is rare.

Collier said the decision:

“… should stand as a warning to unscrupulous landlords who use the Ellis Act as a pretext to evict tenants they don’t like under the guise of going out of the rental business.”

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