MODESTO — As eviction cases go, this one had its share of twists.
A couple trying to buy a home in Modesto took the existing tenant to court in an attempt to evict her. The tenant is the daughter of the property owner trying to sell the home.
Some problems lots of them, actually:
First, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Timothy Salter told the plaintiffs that because they don't yet own the property, they have no legal standing to file an unlawful detainer against the tenant. (Unlawful detainer is legalese for occupying a property without legal right.)
Second, who really owns the home? The father/owner quit-claimed the deed to his girlfriend, presumedly to expedite the sale and prevent the daughter from contesting it.
Third, both the father and the prospective buyers had, at different times, given the tenant 30-day notices to vacate. Because she'd been in the home for more than a year, the law requires a 60-day notice.
And, finally, the renter herself is really good at this stuff. She knows the laws and her rights, and mostly how to use them to stall the eviction process.
In fact, she's been in the home for more than 200 days since being informed of the sale. She's delayed the sale by refusing to allow an appraiser on the property, knowing the deal can't close without an appraisal. She claimed she had to seek psychiatric and medical care because her father and the prospective buyers harassed her about moving. She told the judge she'd even reported them to the police. Then, as if the judge needed legal advice, she began rattling off law after law, code after code. She tried to paint herself as the victim instead of the squatter.
Welcome to Department 22 of the county's civil court, where Salter hears scores of eviction cases each week.
Evictions are nothing new. In fact, merely thumb through the Book of Genesis, wade through the begats and you'll come upon the very first one: God booted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden for breach of contract.
Nowadays, eviction proceedings occur in the valley in no small number because the foreclosure crisis turned many owner-occupied homes into investor-owned rentals. Job losses and high unemployment make it difficult for some tenants to pay the rent. When they don't, landlords who aren't in the business for altruistic purposes go to court to evict them. By virtue of the written rental/lease agreements, landlords usually win, even though Salters said he genuinely feels for many of these people who have fallen on hard times.
"They'll say, 'Where am I going to go?' " he said.
It's not uncommon to find the same landlord in court routinely because he or she has numerous rentals or manages a large complex. But Salters also sees some of the same renters over and over again, as well.
"They take advantage of the landlords, string them out, then go to someplace else and do the same thing all over again," he said.
I sat in on several cases recently. A sampling:
A landlord asked for more time to serve the tenant with a notice to appear in court. The reason for the delay? A transportation issue. The landlord claimed the tenant in question had slashed his tires, making it difficult to deliver the paperwork.
A woman moved into a rental and missed three of the first five payments before leaving. Salters ordered her to pay $2,352 in back rent, plus $300 each for court costs and the landlord's legal fees.
A tenant fell behind on her $900-per-month rent and hasn't paid a dime since handing over $400 in September. She said she'd complained to the owner about a sewage problem and that the water heater didn't work. She told Salter she refused to pay the rent until they fixed the problems, hence the ol' Catch-22 thing.
"They wouldn't fix it because I didn't pay the rent," she claimed.
"I believe she sabotaged the house," the landlord countered. "This all came out after she couldn't pay the rent."
"Are you still (living) there," Salter asked her?
"Yes," she replied.
Salters ordered her to pay $3,350 for back rent and other fees, and to expect sheriff's deputies to evict her within seven to 10 days.
Indeed, when furnaces, appliances and electrical fixtures go unrepaired, some tenants will pay for the repairs themselves and then withhold rent payments. But without some kind of written agreement in place with the landlords, renters still can be evicted for failing to pay the rent.
"It's a slippery slope," said Mark Galvan of Project Sentinel, which handles some landlord-tenant disputes through its Stanislaus Mediation Center. "It happens a lot because the tenants don't know what their responsibilities are."
Mediators generally try to help work out payment plans enabling renters to catch up and stay put.
"Sometimes, there are just misunderstandings," Salter said.
Other times, Galvan said, "(landlords) just want them out."
Every so often, landlords will come to eviction court and put themselves on the radar because they don't provide livable conditions. One ongoing case involves a small enclave of rentals in west Modesto. The landlord wanted to evict one of the tenants, claiming nonpayment of rent among other rental sins.
Their day in court came a couple of weeks ago. The tenant came armed with receipts showing she had been making rent payments. And while she had the judge's attention, she said she also provided photos showing dead cockroaches that had been covered over by new countertop material, detailed that she had no electricity and said that her heater didn't work.
Salter ordered the landlord to reduce her rent temporarily and gave him 30 days to show he's made repairs.
(A week earlier, a raw sewage spill at the same complex brought an order from county Environmental Health officials to clean it up immediately. They said he complied. Then, on Friday, a fire crew responded to a call from the same complex and found sewage being pumped from a septic tank near one home into the basement of an empty rental, according to the county. Leach line repairs are expected to begin Monday.)
As for the case that began today's missive, Salter finally lost patience with the tenant who refused to leave and has thus far blocked the sale of the home. Yes, she delivered a stirring law lecture that would have made Perry Mason proud.
Salter knows all that stuff already. He interrupted her.
"I'm trying to see if there's a way we can resolve this," the judge said.
The prospective buyers wanted her out within 15 days. She demanded 60.
They asked for access to the property to bring the swimming pool back into working order before the weather begins to warm. They even offered to pay for the additional electricity costs for running the pool pump and filter. Seems reasonable, right?
They finally settled on 45 days, meaning she'll have been in the home for roughly 255 days after first being told to depart. Salter got both parties to sign off on this "brokered stipulation," and then broke for lunch.
Another day in eviction court.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.