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San Francisco Landlord Breach of Contract Attorneys

From the San Francisco Chronicle - Thursday, January 03, 2002

THE WOMEN OF F. ALIOTO FISH CO. EXULT IN VICTORY by Nina Wu, The Examiner Staff

The F. Alioto Fish Co., a small wholesale firm founded 60 years ago, has won $3.2 million in a lawsuit against the Port of San Francisco over a rotting pier.

Attorney Angela Alioto -- daughter of the late San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto and a distant relation to the five women who make up the company -- rang in the New Year with news of the victory.

"It's been years of pounding on these five women," Alioto said. "This is a fantastic break. The jury really understood what occurred. My closing argument was 'don't let them do it, don't let them steal the lease from these women who founded half of Fisherman's Wharf.'"

Alioto said she was surprised that the jury found the port guilty of both breach of contract and of failure to deal in good faith. She had predicted victory only on the contract part, and only to the tune of $1 million. "It's very difficult to fight the port," she said. "People who have leases like this are on the verge of closing the doors from one day to another."

Since August 2000, the company has been battling the port over who should pay for reconstruction of the pier -- also known as Fish Alley -- which the company relied on for loading and unloading its catch behind its storefront on Jefferson Street.

Port officials said the lease they signed held the tenants responsible for maintaining the pier, and the port fenced it off, calling it a safety hazard.

But Alioto argued that not only did the port fail to make regular inspections prior to the eviction notice, it also failed to tell the company of the rotting piers even though it had that knowledge, as evidenced in interoffice memos dating back five years. The women's lease lasts another 35 years.

City attorney Donald Margolis, who represented the port, said he was dismayed by the jury's unanimous decision, and the port is likely to appeal it.

“Parts of the lease obligated Alioto to maintain and repair the substructure of the wharf," he said. "It's bewildering to me that the jury failed to enforce that part of the lease."

The trial lasted three weeks and was filled with emotional testimony from those who hold Fisherman's Wharf dear to their hearts. Annetta Lazio, 97, who still pitches in at the fish company, shed tears of relief when the jury ruled in their favor. "We are very happy with the results and hope to continue on," Lazio said.

She is the last surviving sibling of the one sister and nine brothers who founded the company when they first arrived from Sicily in 1904. Three female generations of the Alioto and Lazio family now run the business, which sells Dungeness crab, salmon, snapper, sole and lobster.

The fish company plans to use the money to repair the pier and to continue running the business, said Stephanie Cincotta. "We're basically going to do what we've done all these years and work our fish and crabs," she said.

The Port of San Francisco, a public agency, oversees 7-1/2 miles of Bay shoreline and more than 1,000 acres of land and has an annual budget of $89 million. Several years ago, it launched a Fisherman's Wharf Waterfront Advisory committee to help shape the direction of its development.

Alioto's pivotal argument in the suit was that the port was planning to run the family business out of town and then re-lease the property at a higher value, with the goal of creating another Metreon-style tourist attraction.

The port already owns two of the four buildings along the pier. The only other tenant left besides the F. Alioto Fish Co. is the California Shellfish Co. "It's prime property," Alioto said.

During the trial, she called an officer from the San Francisco Police Department's port office to testify that he had seen blueprints of Wharf J10 demolished in September 2000.