With 30 years under his belt as an attorney in Santa Monica, John Murdock has every reason to be cynical, and yet he exudes the passion of a young guy straight out of law school. Fairness. Justice. Ideals. Civil rights. Environmental rights. Making the legal system work the right way for everyone. Murdock is sure to back the perceived underdog in just about any race, whether he’s representing Pacific Palisades homeowners fighting a proposed lot split in their neighborhood and a provision of the Los Angeles City Planning code that gives an edge to developers; low income tenants in Venice evicted to make way for condominiums; a legally permitted street vendor arrested by police for selling T-shirts; or a coalition of Malibu residents overwhelmed by noise and traffic created by the Getty Villa that overlooks Pacific Coast Highway. “Right out of law school, I took a job with a prominent law firm to see what the inside of the beast looks like. I saw it and I didn’t like it,” said Murdock, who practices Buddhism. “I developed my passion from the idea that you need a system that’s fair. What we have is not a fair justice system. And it won’t change unless people who go into law school hold onto their ideals and resist the allure of the biggest paycheck.” From the day he left the highbrow law firm in Beverly Hills to start his own practice in Santa Monica, Murdock has made a conscious choice to pursue legal cases that, in many instances, speak to his soul, if not always to his pocketbook. He drives a Hyundai, not a Mercedes, and he lives in a small Santa Monica home that he bought in 1993 even as new McMansions crowd around him. While he keeps his personal life simple, Murdock’s legal career is filled with excitement. Among the interesting cases in the line-up for Murdock this year is a lawsuit pending in Los Angeles Superior Court, challenging on constitutional grounds a provision of the City of Los Angeles planning code that favors real estate developers – and one that has led to a standoff over a proposed lot split in a Pacific Palisades neighborhood. The provision of the planning code that Murdock is challenging automatically vetoes certain appeals to development projects if the appeals linger for more than 30 days without being heard by one of the Los Angeles Area Planning Commissions. While the Planning Commissions generally meet more than once a month, their meetings sometimes are cancelled – and those delays automatically force appeals hearings over the 30-day time limit. An obscure section of the planning code, yet it is one that provides a critical leg-up to developers and leaves appellants with the expensive court system as their only recourse. In Murdock’s case, his clients are the Pacific View Estates Homeowners Association and two next-door neighbors of a proposed Palisades project who seek to protect their privacy, views, property values and the large-lot density of their hillside community – one of the last remaining in the area. The man they are suing lives in the same neighborhood: a homeowner and developer who is trying to split his 31,000 square-foot lot on Surfview Drive, at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains, according to Planning Commission documents. Flanked by an attorney, a contractor and a lobbyist, the owner wants to build a second home and garage at the back end of his property for members of his family – a subdivision that would create two lots smaller than most others in the neighborhood. The new two-story house would peer straight into the home next door, owned by a neighbor who says he bought his place for its secluded feel and wants to keep it that way. A previous owner of the land applied for a nearly identical lot split in 1983 and the City of Los Angeles denied the project, arguing that it did not include environmental mitigation measures to protect the hillside area. The city reversed itself in 2005 when it approved the parcel map for the project, pointing out in planning documents that the hillside standards have changed over the past 20 years. A central point of Murdock’s case is that his clients were denied due process in 2005 when the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission turned down their appeal without a hearing. The Planning Commission scheduled two appeals hearings in 2005 for Murdock’s client, Murdock said; both times, he added, the Commission cancelled the meetings when a quorum of its members failed to attend. “They didn’t even notify us we were on the agenda,” said Murdock, mentioning one of the causes of action in the lawsuit, which he filed in November 2005. With the appeals hearings cancelled, the lot split proposal on Surfview Drive moved ahead unchallenged in the approvals process until it hit a standstill last year at the California Coastal Commission, where the project is being reviewed for a coastal permit. Staff members are questioning fundamental parts of the city’s approval and have requested a full Coastal Commission hearing in the case, which has yet to be scheduled. Meanwhile, Murdock’s clients want their say in stopping the project – this time, in court. “If you have an appeals process, you have to run it fairly,” Murdoch said. “Yet the law is slanted toward the property owner. They should have postponed everything until the appellants got a hearing. Instead, the law allows the appeal to be taken from people.” Just a few miles away in Venice, Murdock is in the throes of a far different case, representing the residents of Lincoln Place, a 1950s-era apartment complex. The tenants are suing the City of Los Angeles and Denver-based Apartment Investment and Management Company, which owns the complex and plans to convert the units into condos. In its effort to clear out the buildings, the developer has evoked the Ellis Act, a California state law that enables landlords to evict tenants if the property is being taken off the rental market. Murdock is arguing that the evictions violate the conditions of approval the project received under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), guaranteeing Lincoln Place tenants the right to stay on the property or to be relocated in Venice. Murdock argues that the conditions of approval take precedence over the Ellis Act. “That’s the nub – which law has priority?” he asked. Last June, Murdock filed for an injunction and a writ of mandate in Los Angeles Superior Court to stop the developer from evicting the Lincoln Place tenants. The judge ruled against the tenants, and the case now is on appeal. If Murdock wins the appeal, the judge could issue an order demanding that the landlord bring the tenants back to Lincoln Place. “In this situation, you’ve got people who are on the short end of the stick and are finding themselves falling off the stick,” Murdock said. Indeed, from the very beginning, Murdock has made a career out of helping those on the short end of the stick. In his first major case in 1976, Murdock sued the City of Los Angeles and the LAPD for harassment of two vendors selling merchandise on Ocean Front Walk. An injunction and jury verdict in federal court led to the open-air market that now lines Ocean Front Walk from the Santa Monica border to the Venice Pier. That case led to another in 1978, when Murdock sued the City of Los Angeles and the LAPD on behalf another vendor – a woman from Kansas City who was selling T-shirts on the street outside the King Tut “Treasures of Tutankhamen” exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Murdock took the case to federal district court and to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and, after a decade of court wrangling, he won. “The police were harassing people in violation of due process of law,” Murdock said. “In the King Tut case, the city had issued Julie Chalmers a permit after she had done all her homework and invested her money in the T-shirts, and the cops said, ‘That’s not worth the paper it’s written on. We are the law out here.’” Murdock considers one of his biggest successes the case he won in the 1980s in which he helped a citizens group stop Occidental Oil Company from erecting oil-drilling rigs along the beach at Will Rogers State Beach. His clients took Occidental to court and launched a ballot measure precluding the drilling; the company eventually donated the land to the public. In another case further up the coast that spanned the late 1980s and early 1990s, Murdock filed on behalf of volunteer Malibu Township Council to stop the County of Los Angeles from installing a sewer system, including a treatment plant, in the lush community set in the hills above the beach. “Malibu was able to fight off the county and maintain its rural atmosphere,” he said. “What the county wanted to do would have brought development and more traffic to the PCH. We convinced the Coastal Commission that this would strangle the coast.” Taking on another behemoth in 2004, albeit unsuccessfully this time, Murdoch sued the Getty Villa, a lawsuit sparked by the proposed construction of an outdoor amphitheater on the museum’s property that would rock nearby residential neighborhoods with noise. Murdock won the case in Los Angeles Superior Court, where the judge said the amphitheater and increased traffic created by the expansion plans violated CEQA. Unfortunately for Murdock, the California Court of Appeal overturned the decision in an unpublished opinion. Undeterred by his loss in the Getty case – and in any other case, for that matter – Murdock says he finds strength in spirituality, where he anchors the long-held passion and idealism that have marked his legal career. “When I started my practice, I started practicing Buddhism – to see if I could put my philosophy into my practice,” he said. “There’s too much pressure in our society to conform, to go along, to get the paycheck. What we’re doing with the sky-high pay scale in big law firms is simply wiping out a lot of youthful idealism. My objective is to not give up, to not give up on my ideals.”
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