Monday, June 29, 2009

The landlord strikes back! (Sort of.) (Part V)

The sweet taste of victory lasted for precisely three days. On January 31, I received my official copy of the court's judgement, and to my dismay, the court had neglected to include the 15 months of interest to which we were entitled, according to Massachusetts General Law (remember how I told you to get used to hearing that? I really need to get better about using Autotext).

Being the older and wiser person that I am now, I realize that I should've just accepted that judgment and moved on. But I was neither old nor wise back then (quiet, you), and the amount of interest was almost $200, which was not an insignificant sum to people of our means. So back down to the Small Claims Clerk's Office I went, to see what could be done about this situation.

In my previous column, I failed to do the Small Claims Office justice (rim shot), so let me briefly correct that oversight. The people who staff that office operate with human-like efficiency while maintaining a mechanical warmth, and no, that is not a typo. In their defense, they have probably heard every complaint, excuse, and argument out there, because as we saw, any yahoo with 19 bucks and an axe to grind can take it to Small Claims Court. I think that the day that technology advances to the point where we can replace them with machines will probably be best for all involved. Maybe even machines with big whirring sawblades that can decapitate landlords after, say, their third appearance in a five-year period.

[Computer voice]: Name.

[Nervous landlord]: Scott Stevens.

[Computer voice]: You may pass.

(The landlord shrugs and moves on.)

[Computer voice]: Name.

[Balding landlord with bad moustache]: Uh, Fred...Fred, uh, Noland.

[Computer voice]: Nice to see you again, Mister "Noland". *BZZZZZAAAAAWWWWWWWWWW*

But I digress.

The Clerk's Office gave me a form to fill out explaining what I wanted to change about the decision, and told me that it would be considered at my payment review hearing, which had been scheduled for March 4. That wasn't bad--even I wasn't so naive that I expected Fred to pay me the money before then, anyway. The turnip truck is at least around the bend by now. But neither did I expect the response that I did get from him.

On February 22, just ten days before the payment review hearing, I received a fat letter in my mailbox from one Fred W. "Noland". Why, I thought, he must have mailed me the entire deposit in cash! Wasn't that generous of him!, he didn't. What he had mailed me was a copy of the motions he had made in court to remove the judgment against him, dismiss the case, and award himself roughly $9,000 in damages over and above the security deposit he'd already stolen.

I'm sure you can imagine my reaction to this, but at the time I was unable to express it properly, there being a mandatory 7-day waiting period to purchase a handgun. I chose instead to vent my frustration through another outlet--namely, writing about it. I wish that other people could provide me with as much inspiration as Fred; within the next ten days, I had crafted a 14-page response to his motions, complete with citations in MA General Law, as well as an item-by-item refutation of the $9,000 in damages he had claimed. A few more landlords like him and my dream of being a novelist would quickly become a reality. (Heck, look at how many posts this has turned into!) I won't reproduce the entire thing in detail here, but there were some highlights:

- "The three tenants jointly paid the deposit thus, Morrison is not under any circumstances due any amount greater than 1/3 of the deposit of $1,650. Morrison's maximum claim on the deposit is therefor $530." (Apparently, math wasn't Fred's strong suit.)

- "...arbitration is demanded in the lease and is now demanded in this court or transferrer [sic] to such court where such demand maybe [sic] made..." (Nor was proofreading.)

- "The defendant does not own the property in question and thus is the wrong defendant; the property is now owned by a trust and the deposit was transferred to the trust." (Ah! His strong suit is attempted legal dodges! Well...not really. More on this later.)

- "I hereby demand a payment of $150 for this day in court." (As you'll recall, he had yet to actually appear in court...but if he's going to start putting a price on it, I'll settle for the same.)

The list of damages were a hoot, too:

- $540 to replace a porch railing that was broken when we moved in, plus an additional $100 in "punitive damages". (James established its condition by nearly tumbling to his death when he first leaned against it. Had he not had Bert's oversized head to grab onto, we would've been fighting our legal battles with Fred much sooner.)

- $809 for the soap dish he'd replaced in the shower;

- $270 for the kitchen sink;

- $1,531 for things listed on the Statement of Condition, including $475 of things he himself had listed there;

- $2,475 in lost rent because we'd left the unit in such poor condition that it could not be rented for six weeks; and

- $2,100 because he had to lower the rent from what he wanted to what he could actually get.

Those last two are my favorites, not only because of the sheer audacity of them, but because he had claimed in the very same letter that he no longer owned the property--it was now owned by a trust, remember? (See, I told you there'd be more on that later!) So he's not the owner, but he still gets to collect rent for the next year. Neat trick!

When March 4 rolled around, I arrived in court even earlier, fully prepared to refute every argument Fred had made. I had the signed Statement of Condition; listings of other three-bedroom apartments renting in Belmont for considerably less than what he'd had to lower it from, or even than what he'd lowered it to; I even had dug out the original canceled deposit check with our boy Fred's signature on the back. I was ready for a fight. More than that, I WANTED a fight.

But I have to admit, I was not altogether disappointed when he didn't show again.

Sports fans will tell you that a forfeit is not a satisfying way to win, but it sure looks good in the box scores. Fred's motions were denied, mine was accepted, and so the earlier judgment for the plaintiff was amended to include the interest. That reset the payment clock, meaning that Fred had another 30 days. I was getting pretty good at this by now, so that was fine--I'd be back in April.

This time, it would be different.

Next Post: You know what, it actually was!

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