Join Date: Dec 2007
Location: San Francisco
Re: Taking on another college town slumlord..did I blow it?
TomfooleryU goes to small claims court
First of all, I'm not going to go into every last detail partially because I unfortunately don't have a resolution yet -- I'll get a decision within 30 days, one which I'm confident will be in my favor (although likely not for the full amount) based on how the hearing went.
I get to court a bit early and everyone else who has a small claims hearing that day is just sitting around in the gallery -- I take my seat and 5 minutes later my landlady strolls in with her lawyer. Despite there being 100+ seats and less than 20 people there, she comes and sits literally right next to me and half-yells "HI!" I just kinda look at her and smirk and say hey, she asks how I'm doing, I pass up saying 'better when I'm done dealing with your crap' and just answer politely. Court's running late and I really don't feel like sitting next to her and appearing to be on good terms, so I step out for a breath of fresh air and sit elsewhere when I come back in.
Judge comes in and I'm thinking this is straight outta Judge Judy -- he's wearing sunglasses and opens court by saying, "Sorry guys, I broke my glasses and I'm too lazy to go out to my car to get the other pair so I'm just going to be wearing my sunglasses today." lol.
Biggest lesson of the day: Don't be a landlord. Watching the other cases was painful -- for example, a lady whose rent was $2xx/month yet was $3,800 behind and still couldn't be evicted for a month plus. I say $2xx because she didn't know the exact number, and had given her landlord "cash from time to time, but not sure when or how much." There were some cases where one side was missing, including the plaintiff who had sued a guy who drove 600 miles to defend himself, only to have them no show. Oh, and he still is going to have to come back if they re-file. It all went fairly quick and I was one of two cases being contested.
Showtime. Despite landlord's lawyer asking for a 2 week continuance so that a vital witness could be there (maybe they were hoping I'd have moved by then? Landlady knew I was planning a cross-country move after school), there were no outside witnesses. Since it's just me, her and her lawyer, the judge had me sit in the witness chair and I gave my side after giving him the 'itemized' list of deductions and copies of the relevant emails.
After I described the walls that had to be painted and how the wallpaper had been ripped down and not covered before I moved in, he asked if they had been painted before I moved in and I said 'I can't imagine they were because there were a couple small holes and the place where the wallpaper had been torn down was still an unpainted, different shade than the rest of the wall.' The judge seemed unmoved by the argument that she had done all this in advance of my lease ending, which I was surprised by but quickly moved away from and focused on arguing the other points so as to not waste time once I could see it wasn't effective.
Described everything else basically as I already have here. Her lawyer got to question me, and his initial line of questioning was just regarding whether or not I'd received the itemized list and if I'd gotten it within 30 days of moving out. At that point, the judge cut her lawyer off and said something along the lines of "I'm not sure why you're even asking him that -- even if the defendant sent him the list he still gets double damages if the charges aren't correct."
Lawyer asked a lot of questions as I'm sure he'd been trained, trying to just get the 'yes' or 'no' answer from me, but I made sure to give as much detail as possible instead of just giving the one word answer that would make me look bad only because it didn't relay the entirety of the circumstances. On at least 2 occasions the judge asked me to just answer the questions instead of basically arguing back, but I think I basically proceeded as I had been to make sure the whole story was told. The lawyer was basically trying to make the argument that I'd moved out, even though I had some (not a ton) belongings remaining, had clearly emailed her indicating I still wanted to work on the place and had gotten a response from her prior to her going in and doing work, etc.
So after we get done with that, my landlady goes into the witness stand for her turn. She's probably 70 years old, but of course she gets up there and tries to get sympathy by appearing to be a little, quiet 100 year old lady, speaking in a much more gentle, somber way than she had in all the times I'd interacted with her. In her testimony/answers to her lawyers questions, there were at least 4 things that were lies/just incorrect/phrased deceptively to be more favorable to her.
Since I was representing myself, I then got to question her. I basically just said things along the lines of, "So did you just say that __(insert inaccuracy from her testimony)__?" and then I'd follow up by either asking her something that corrected it or in 1-2 cases I even just said "You're remembering that incorrectly -- this is how it was." Her lawyer, probably correctly, jumped in and said "Your honor, these aren't questions" after I had luckily already asked my main questions..the judge seemed to be taking a bit of time to decide how to proceed but I just told him I'd pretty much covered everything anyway so we could just move on.
Then the judge starts asking my landlady questions.
"You charged $125 to paint the wall -- you thought that was reasonable?"
"How did you arrive at that price?"
Landlady says she bought the paint for $30, had her handyman fix it.
"Did you pay him hourly or how was that determined?"
"Do you have a receipt from that?"
"You don't have any receipt?"
"So the fan..what was wrong with the fan?"
-In my testimony, I'd basically said, "The fan stopped working on it's own -- it hadn't worked when I moved in and she had a handyman fix it then, but this happened at the tail end of the lease and I'm not really sure what was wrong with it -- maybe [landlord] can clarify? -- all I know is that when I flipped the switch it didn't turn on. I'm 5'7'' and the ceiling was at least 8-9' high -- I couldn't have reached it to damage it even if I wanted to -- she also charged my roommate $25 for his fan and it's my understanding his just needed a new lightbulb."
-Landlord (answering judge's question): "It didn't work!"
"Well yeah, I get that, but do you know what was wrong with it? You can't just tell me it doesn't work -- things stop working all the time, that's not his fault, he had to have actually damaged it for it to be his responsibility, what was the problem with it?"
-"I don't know."
Judge asked a couple more questions to my landlord basically prying deeper, and at this point her lawyer butts in: "Your honor, can I just say something? This is the defendant [landlord] -- she doesn't have to make the case here, the burden's on the other side."
I'd done no more than 5 hours of research into all this, and even I knew that my state's courts have consistently ruled the opposite. Since security deposits are paid by the tenant and really are their money UNTIL the landlord proves they have the right to make deductions, in these cases the burden is on the landlord to prove why they should get to keep the tenant's money. She's paying this guy and he doesn't even know the underlying law behind the main issue in the case.
Judge: "Noooooo I think I'd have to disagree with you on that. He paid that rent, that's his money -- I think it's on you to prove otherwise if you want to keep that. Yeah, I'd have to say I don't think I agree with you there."
-Landlord or lawyer, don't remember which, pipes up to say it's the security deposit, not the rent. Judge responds 'Yeah I know, I meant security deposit, but I feel the same either way.'
Her lawyer asks a couple more inconsequential questions, and then the judge gives us each an opportunity to say anything else we want to add, but neither side does. Looking back I wish I would've reiterated a couple points where I think the judge agreed with me and may have gotten me more money back. Those points we somewhat glossed over, so I'm hoping he remembers it when he decides -- we'll see.
Overall, it was pretty comedic how awful her lawyer was. On the fly, I noticed 3 separate times where he could have presented things in a way that would have certainly weakened my case. While I didn't lie at all, there were certain elements that would have supported her side better and he failed to capitalize on them. I entered the 2 exhibits (loltastic deduction list, emails) and they didn't enter any, despite the fact that I even mentioned in my testimony that she had pictures she could show (was more arguing other aspects, figured better to be upfront about it than have her enter them as 'OMG! Look how awful this place was left!" later and me be put on the defensive) and she mentioned she had pictures. I really want to know how much she paid for her lawyer, because it was atrocious lawyering.
Judge tells us he'll have a decision to us within 30 days, and that's it. Based on the questioning and his responses, I think I'll get double the full amount returned for moving the dresser (which my landlord basically conceded my story was accurate on), the fan, as well as part of the charge for painting the walls. I'm less sure about the $75 cleaning fee, since the judge didn't seem convinced by the fact that courts in my state have said that a failure to itemize further beyond "$xx -- cleaning" should result in returning double the amount to the tenant, since it's insufficient to differentiate between normal wear and tear and the actual, extraordinary damages.
End of the day, I'll likely get at least some of my deposit back along with my court costs. So (knock on wood) scamlord will be returning at least some of my $250, will have to pay my $40 court filing fee, and whatever her legal fees were. I was going back up to my college town to party on the day I filed the case anyway and got to grab lunch with a couple friends after I was done yesterday, so it wasn't too much extra effort on my part and hopefully she'll think a little harder before being a pos to future tenants. Probably not, but at least I can sleep fine knowing I didn't just let her take advantage of me and steal my money.
My whole life philosophy can basically be boiled down to "Work your ass off; be honest; be kind, but if someone ****s with you, bury them." Pursuing this was in keeping with that, so even if the dollar amount was somewhat miniscule (although I was asking for $540 -- damagesx2 plus court costs, which isn't exactly chump change to me considering I just finished up college and haven't started work yet), it was worth it to me.
Will answer any questions and most definitely update once the decision gets handed down.
-Judge is straight hollywood-ing it up in small claims court
-Small claims court is depressing
-Judge seemed receptive to some arguments, not so much others
-Landlady is old lady, acts much older/feebler in attempt to garner sympathy
-Landlady's lawyer is an absolute joke, judge smacks him around a couple times
-Landlady/lawyer exhibit scumminess, although scumbags gonna scumbag/don't hate the player hate the game
-Overall I think it went well and I'll get some amount 0<x<$540 (amount prayed for)
-Decision coming within 30 days, to be updated later