A Superior Court judge has refused to issue an order prohibiting a tenant organization's attorneys from contacting residents of the 288-unit Pacific Plaza Apartments, where asbestos was found in August.
The building's owner, J.L. Jones & Co., and its manager, Joy O'Connell, had sought a temporary restraining order to prevent the attorneys from entering the building.
The attorneys were hired by the 1431 Ocean Avenue Tenants Organization to prepare possible legal action related to the asbestos contamination and other problems in the building.
In denying the request Wednesday, Judge David M. Rothman told Roslyn Stewart, the attorney for J.L. Jones & Co., "I know of no case where a court ever interfered with the preparation of a lawsuit. You cannot prevent litigation from occurring and I see this as an attempt to prevent litigation."
The asbestos fibers were disturbed when workers installing a sprinkler system in the 15-story Pacific Plaza cut through ceiling panels in late August.
The county Department of Health Services issued a health advisory but did not order the building evacuated. The asbestos was cleaned up by mid-September. Inhalation of asbestos fibers has been listed as the cause for a number of serious diseases, including cancer and asbestosis.
In their request for a temporary restraining order, O'Connell and J.L. Jones claimed that the tenant organization's attorneys were soliciting tenants, which is a violation of the state Bar Assn.'s code of conduct.
Stewart said before the ruling that she was simply trying to prevent attorney Lisa Monk; the law firm of Sayre, Moreno, Purcell & Boucher, which represents the 1431 Ocean Avenue Tenants Organization, and tenant Bodee Maxwell, president of the organization, from soliciting business in the building.
Both Monk and Raymond Boucher, an attorney with the Sayre law firm, denied that they were soliciting tenants. They said Maxwell had contacted them and asked them to represent the tenants organization.
Rothman said that although some evidence suggested that Maxwell might have been soliciting tenants to join in legal action against J.L. Jones, he would not rule against Maxwell.
"Isn't it common practice in litigation involving large groups to have parties solicit other parties to that suit?" Rothman asked Stewart in court. Stewart responded, "This is such blatant ambulance chasing that the court cannot condone it."
But Rothman said lawyers have a right to talk to anyone who may be a witness to something that is the subject of possible litigation.
After Rothman ruled, both sides said they had won.
"It's a good day for tenants," Monk said. She added that the request for a restraining order was "a retaliatory move" in response to the formation of the tenant's organization.
Monk also said the owners had begun eviction proceedings against Maxwell last week to retaliate against the roughly 80 tenants who have joined the organization.
"But the court showed tenants it will not assist landlords in intimidating them," Monk said.
However, Stewart also claimed victory even though Rothman denied the order she sought.
"I doubt we will see attorneys soliciting in the building anymore," she said.
Stewart also denied that the eviction action against Maxwell was tied to her position as president of the tenants organization.
J.L. Jones and O'Connell have also filed a $5-million lawsuit against Maxwell, Monk and the Sayre law firm, charging them with intentional interference with business relations, fraud, unfair competition and inflicting of emotional distress stemming from the controversy over the asbestos contamination of the building and the legal efforts of the defendants.
Maxwell said the suit is another effort by her landlord to retaliate for the formation of a tenants association.
Questioned about the suit, Stewart would only say that "the suit speaks for itself."