City Attorney David Chiu

San Francisco seeks stay in homeless encampment lawsuit pending Grants Pass Supreme Court decision

The City is seeking a pause in the litigation to avoid wasting public resources in litigation that is based entirely on precedent being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court

SAN FRANCISCO (January 18, 2024) — City Attorney David Chiu filed a Motion for Stay in Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco, which would pause legal proceedings in the City’s case pending a decision by the United States Supreme Court in Grants Pass v. Johnson. Plaintiffs’ case against San Francisco and the preliminary injunction issued are inextricably tied to the legal precedent in Grants Pass, which the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review. The City is seeking a pause in its litigation in order to give all parties time to assess the impact of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Grants Pass and ensure public resources are not wasted building a case and refuting evidence that may become irrelevant in a few short months as a result of that U.S. Supreme Court decision.

City Attorney David Chiu
City Attorney David Chiu

“The Grants Pass decision underpins every aspect of Plaintiffs’ case against the City and is the foundation of the preliminary injunction issued by the District Court,” said City Attorney Chiu. “Not a single argument against San Francisco can be untangled from Grants Pass. It makes no sense to spend months litigating this case and expend enormous resources collecting evidence and expert testimony when the entire legal landscape may soon change. The Court should not force us to waste precious public resources during an intense budget shortfall.”

Between now and June 2024, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision is expected in Grants Pass, the City and Plaintiffs planned to embark on some of the most expensive and time-consuming work in the litigation, including producing documents, taking and defending depositions, working with expert witnesses, and drafting and defending against motions from Plaintiffs. This work would be irrelevant if the U.S. Supreme Court modifies or reverses the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Grants Pass. Should the Motion for Stay be granted, the preliminary injunction would remain in place while the case is paused.

Additionally, Plaintiffs recently made statements indicating they believe the City is following the preliminary injunction and doing a good job of placing more unhoused people in shelter. Taken together, it is clear unhoused people would not suffer any adverse consequences should legal proceedings be paused for a few months.

Coalition on Homelessness v. San Francisco
Despite billions of dollars spent on a services-first approach to addressing homelessness, the Coalition on Homelessness filed a lawsuit in 2022 challenging San Francisco’s practices related to homeless encampments.

In December 2022, Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu issued a preliminary injunction that prohibits San Francisco from enforcing or threatening to enforce certain laws prohibiting sitting, lying, sleeping, and lodging on public property against “involuntarily homeless individuals” as long as the number of people experiencing homelessness exceeds the number of available shelter beds. The preliminary injunction relies heavily on precedent set by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Johnson v. Grants Pass and its predecessor case Martin v. Boise. Much of the language in the District Court’s preliminary injunction order in San Francisco’s case quotes Martin and Grants Pass verbatim.

The preliminary injunction expanded precedent and went further than what Martin and Grants Pass allowed, putting the City in an untenable and uncertain position. San Francisco appealed the preliminary injunction to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit issued an order in September 2023 clarifying that people who refuse offers of shelter do not meet the definition of “involuntarily homeless,” and thus, the injunction does not apply to them. On January 11, 2024, the Ninth Circuit ruled on the rest of San Francisco’s appeal, allowing the preliminary injunction to remain in place while also directing the District Court to narrow the injunction.

The City intends to seek an extension of the deadline to file a Motion for Rehearing or Motion for Rehearing En Banc with the Ninth Circuit until after the U.S. Supreme Court makes a decision in Grants Pass. This extension, if granted, would preserve this legal avenue for the City following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

San Francisco’s case is Coalition on Homelessness, et al. v. City and County of San Francisco, et al., U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, No. 4:22-cv-05502. The Motion for Stay can be found here.

Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, Oregon
Relying on the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Martin v. Boise, homeless advocates filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Grants Pass, Oregon, in 2018, challenging the City’s homelessness policies. A District Court ruled against Grants Pass, which appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision and issued a decision that expanded upon its precedent in Martin v. Boise. In August 2023, the City of Grants Pass filed a Writ of Certiorari, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take the case on January 12, 2024.

The question at issue in Grants Pass is whether generally applicable laws regulating public lodging or camping are considered “cruel and unusual” punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

San Francisco, along with dozens of other state and local governments across the Ninth Circuit, submitted an amicus brief in Grants Pass. San Francisco’s brief argued that it does not make sense to criminally prosecute homeless individuals for sleeping on public property when they have no other place to go, but that in Grants Pass the Ninth Circuit misapplied the law and has left cities without the necessary tools to address homelessness and keep streets safe and accessible.

The U.S. Supreme Court will issue a decision in Grants Pass during this term, which ends in June 2024. The City is seeking a stay of its litigation until 60 days after the U.S. Supreme Court issues its decision, giving both parties sufficient time to assess the impact of the decision.

The case is City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 23-175.