Court approves pause in homeless encampment lawsuit pending Grants Pass Supreme Court decision

The City successfully sought 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 (February 23, 2024) — City Attorney David Chiu issued a statement today after Judge Donna Ryu granted the City’s Motion for Stay in Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco. Judge Ryu’s order will pause nearly all legal proceedings in the City’s case until 30 days after the United States Supreme Court issues a decision 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 sought a pause in the 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. While the case is stayed, the preliminary injunction order will remain in place.

City Attorney David Chiu speaks at a press conference in May 2023.

“We appreciate that the District Court’s decision spares the City from wasting public resources litigating this case when the entire legal landscape may soon change,” said City Attorney 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. Not a single argument against San Francisco can be untangled from Grants Pass. While this case is paused, San Francisco will continue to follow the preliminary injunction order and work hard to alleviate homelessness throughout the City.”

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 Ninth Circuit granted the City an extension of time to file a Motion for Rehearing or Motion for Rehearing En Banc until after the U.S. Supreme Court makes a decision in Grants Pass. This extension preserves 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. Judge Ryu’s order granting 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.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Grants Pass on April 22 and is expected to issue a decision in the case during this term, which ends in June 2024. The case is City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, U.S. Supreme Court, Case No. 23-175.