Landlord sued for threatening to turn tenant in to immigration authorities

A Peninsula resident sued her former Burlingame landlord in federal court in San Francisco Tuesday, alleging the landlord illegally threatened to report her to immigration authorities during an eviction dispute.

The civil rights lawsuit by Estela Cano, who is of Mexican descent, against apartment owner Melinda Teruel claims discrimination on the basis of perceived immigration status and on the basis of national origin.

Federal civil rights law forbids discrimination based on national origin, among other categories, while California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act specifically forbids bias based on immigration status as well as national origin.

The lawsuit cites both federal and state laws.

Cano lived with her adult son and minor daughter in a one-bedroom Burlingame apartment owned by Teruel from 2011 to 2017, under a lease agreement that limited occupation of the unit to no more than three people, according to the lawsuit.

Beginning in early 2017, Teruel began telling Cano the apartment was too small for her family, and she sought to evict Cano in August of that year, the lawsuit says. Cano moved to an apartment in Belmont in September.

During the dispute, the lawsuit contends, Teruel made several threats to report Cano to federal immigration authorities. Teruel allegedly said in one voicemail, “Your file is now going to immigration and IRS … You can be deported.”

She allegedly said in a text message, “If you want to leave with Immigration behind you — you cannot sanctuary in my building!!!”

Araceli Martinez-Olguin, a lawyer for Cano, declined to disclose her client’s actual immigration status, saying that it is not relevant, as opposed to the landlord’s perception of her status.

“Immigrants have civil rights regardless of what their status is. I’m please to work with someone like Estela Cano who has the courage to stand up for her rights,” the attorney said.

Cano said in a statement, “What happened to me is unjust and I want to prevent other immigrants from experiencing the same kind of harassment and discrimination.”

Teruel could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit seeks a compensatory and punitive financial award and an injunction requiring the landlord to provide equal housing opportunities to all tenants and prospective tenants.

-Julie Cheever, Bay City News

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