An appellate court has upheld more than $600,000 in fines against one of Seattle's most notorious landlords — an amount that is one...
An appellate court has upheld more than $600,000 in fines against one of Seattle’s most notorious landlords — an amount that is one of the largest penalties in city history.
On Monday, the state appeals court said the city had the authority to levy fines of more than $75,000 against Hugh and Martha Sisley. The Sisleys had contested the municipal court’s authority to impose fines beyond that amount.
Under the decision, the couple must pay fines for many violations of city housing code at two Roosevelt neighborhood homes.
“This is a victory for good government and for Seattle’s neighborhoods,” City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a statement Thursday. The decision, he said, reinforces the city’s ability “to make it more expensive to be a slumlord than to comply with the Seattle Municipal Code.”
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Kimberly Mills, a spokeswoman for Holmes, said she didn’t know of a larger fine issued by the city.
The Sisleys are “very likely” to appeal to the state Supreme Court, said their attorney, Jeffrey Grant.
They own about 40 properties, many in the Roosevelt neighborhood near a proposed Sound Transit light-rail station. The area is expected to be redeveloped with high-rise buildings and more commercial properties.
The two houses at issue are single-family homes that had been divided up and rented as guest rooms.
One, in the 6500 block of 16th Avenue Northeast, came to the city’s attention in 2008 when a tenant complained of an infestation of ants. When the property manager refused to exterminate them, the tenant turned to the city.
City inspectors found 16 other code violations, including missing handrails, missing smoke detectors and deteriorating stairs, according to court records.
At the other home, in the 6300 block of 15th Avenue Northeast, a tenant complained of six broken or boarded-up windows, a broken toilet and shower, and a hole in the wall stuffed with newspapers to cover electrical wiring, the city claimed. Inspectors found 26 code violations.
The violations in both houses were fixed, according to Grant. But the couple did not want to allow city inspectors back inside, he said, claiming the repairs could be seen from the outside.
The city said it could not confirm compliance, so it continued to assess fines up to $300 a day after the first 10 days before suing the Sisleys in Municipal Court.
A Municipal Court judge upheld fines amounting to $247,400 for the first house and $368,000 for the second.
The Sisleys appealed to King County Superior Court, claiming that city courts cannot impose fines above $75,000, the limit for civil claims in district courts. A judge agreed, but was overturned on appeal.
The appeals court said limiting the city’s powers to enforce its municipal code is to “improperly undermine the power granted to the City by the Legislature.”
According to the city, the Sisleys have had about 200 code-enforcement cases dating back to the 1980s. It has collected about $58,000 in fines and required six of the Sisleys’ structures to be demolished over the past three years.
Grant said “slumlord” is no longer a fair term to apply to the Sisleys, as they are working to develop their properties commercially as part of the Roosevelt neighborhood improvements.
“It’s a completely different ballgame, in terms of what they’re involved in,” he said, adding the Sisleys should now be considered “pro-development.”
In a separate legal case, the city won a judgment in Municipal Court last spring against the Sisleys for violating the city’s relocation-assistance ordinance, which requires landlords to pay for tenants forced to move because of code violations.
The Sisleys appealed that case, and arguments will be heard Friday morning in Superior Court. Grant said a $3,300 relocation payment advanced to the tenant by the city ballooned to $26,000 with fines.
Seattle Times staff reporter Lynn Thompson contributed to this report. Jeff Hodson: 206-464-2109