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The San Francisco Housing Authority needs to look a little harder for money to pay a $12 million jury verdict, the First District Court of Appeal ruled Thursday. A San Francisco Superior Court jury awarded the sum more than three years ago to the relatives of five people who were killed in a fire at one of the agency’s public housing complexes. The housing authority has said it’s paid what it can and tried to persuade the First District to overturn a lower court’s orders to pay the judgment in full. But the First District sided with the plaintiffs. State law “expressly and specifically requires a local public entity to pay the full amount of any judgment, with interest,” Justice William Stein wrote in the opinion, with Justices Douglas Swager and Sandra Margulies concurring. At most, the housing authority may have shown it didn’t have the means in 2003, the court ruled. But it has not shown that it will never have the money, Stein wrote. State law does allow such agencies, if they get a court order, to pay the judgment off in annual installments over 10 years, the justices noted. Since San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy ordered the agency to pay up in 2003, the housing authority has paid the plaintiffs $2.7 million. But that money came from a bad-faith case against the agency’s insurers, and housing officials claimed that was all they could give because their regular funding mostly comes from the federal government and has strings attached. Thomas Brandi, who argued the plaintiffs’ case before the First District last month, claimed the agency lacked the will to pay, not the means. He noted the housing authority’s annual budget exceeds $200 million. The agency’s lawyer, Nossaman Guthner Knox & Elliott partner John Hansen, conceded that state law requires local public entities to appropriate the money if they don’t already have it. But he argued that the housing authority was in an exceptional position and had no options. It has no taxing authority, and selling real estate would mean evicting low-income tenants, he told the court. In its opinion, the court responded that the agency “may or may not have funds available at the present time, but that means only that it has an excuse for not paying the full amount of the judgment during the current fiscal year.” The agency might be able to use part of its funding from the federal government or sell some of its property, for instance, Stein wrote. Hansen said Thursday afternoon that he couldn’t comment on the agency’s next move because he had not seen the opinion or spoken with his clients about it. Brandi could not be reached by deadline. Plaintiffs in two other cases may take heart in the decision. Both are set to face off against the housing authority in similar appellate cases in which the agency is challenging trial court orders to pay other judgments. The full text of the ruling in Joseph v. S.F. Housing Authority, A104946, will appear in Monday’s California Daily Opinion Service.

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