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9th Circuit rejects challenge to Santa Monica's short-term rental law

Courts Ninth Circuit Appellate First Amendment

Courts

On March 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed dismissal of two online short-term rental companies’ (plaintiffs) action challenging the City of Santa Monica’s Ordinance 2535. According to the opinion, Ordinance 2535, which was amended in 2017, imposed four obligations on online platforms hosting rentals: (i) collecting and remitting Transient Occupancy Taxes; (ii) regularly disclosing listings and booking information to Santa Monica; (iii) only booking properties licensed and listed on Santa Monica’s registry; and (iv) refraining from collecting a fee for “ancillary services.” The plaintiffs challenged the Ordinance, arguing that it was preempted by the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) and it violated the First Amendment by restricting commercial speech, because it required the plaintiffs to monitor and remove third-party content. The lower court dismissed the action concluding the plaintiffs failed to state a claim under the CDA and the First Amendment.

On appeal, the 9th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling. The appellate court determined that Ordinance 2535 was not expressly preempted by its terms, nor would it “pose an obstacle to Congress’s aim to encourage self-monitoring of third-party content” under the CDA because it only required the plaintiffs to monitor incoming requests to complete a booking transaction, which is content that is “distinct, internal, and nonpublic.” As for the First Amendment claim, the appellate court concluded that the effect of Ordinance 2535 on its face is to regulate booking transactions, which is “nonexpressive conduct,” rejecting the plaintiffs’ claims that it required them to monitor screen advertisements. Moreover, the appellate court noted that the Ordinance does not target websites that advertise the very same properties but do not process transactions, which underscores the proposition that the Ordinance is only targeting companies that “engage in unlawful booking transactions.”

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