Jeff Jardine

Suing local dealerships creates conundrum

Perhaps you've pondered the age-old question:

"If a tree falls in the forest, but there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

There's a similar kind of debate going on at the Stanislaus County Courthouse, where four lawsuits are working their way through the system. Of course, mere philosophical debate isn't possible when lawyers get involved.

Their dispute:

Should a person who is here illegally and used a fraudulent Social Security number to buy a car be able to sue the dealer for fraud?

Here are the particulars, all of which could elevate your blood pressure:

Two used car dealerships -- Budget Motors in Ceres and Sarah Auto Sales in Modesto -- are accused in separate lawsuits of taking advantage of Latino customers by failing to provide Spanish- language copies of their sales and financing agreements. In some cases, the customers also complained about problems with the vehicles.

These alleged victims, in most cases, are illegal immigrants who admitted during depositions that they used stolen or otherwise fraudulent Social Security numbers to obtain driver's licenses and jobs, and as ID to get financing.

The Stanislaus County district attorney's office opted not to prosecute them for being in the United States illegally or for using fraudulent information to obtain IDs and financing.

Alan Cassidy, a Stanislaus County deputy district attorney, said police investigators couldn't locate the people whose Social Security numbers have been stolen. No victims, no crimes. The district attorney's office, he said, won't file charges in a case that it couldn't prosecute just to help a defendant in a civil case.

In all four lawsuits, the plaintiffs are represented by attorney Parviz Darabi of Burlingame, who said he advertises in Spanish-language publications and in the Yellow Pages in South Bay counties.

Translated, one of his magazine ads reads: "Did you buy a car from a dealership and you think you were cheated? The lawyer can help you with this injustice!"

The majority of the plaintiffs live in the Bay Area and somehow felt compelled to come all the way to Stanislaus County to purchase vehicles. Two other plaintiffs, who do live in this county, managed to find that same attorney.

Three plaintiffs, at Budget Motors' behest, brought their vehicles to the dealership for inspection in March. All three were arrested at the dealership by the Ceres police. One was deported to Mexico. The district attorney, as mentioned earlier, decided not to prosecute the others.

"We're asking them to enforce the law," said Kevin Seibert, a Stockton attorney who represents Budget Motors and owner Abraham Roberts. Seibert said his private investigator had no trouble locating three people whose Social Security numbers were compromised by the plaintiffs. They included a woman living in northern Arizona and another whose deceased husband's identity was stolen.

Regardless, the cases will meander through the civil courts.

Seibert argues that the plaintiffs' claims have no merit and should be thrown out.

"Had they not filled out credit applications fraudulently, there never would have been a negotiation in any language," Seibert said.

He asked Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne to dismiss one of the cases based on an "unclean hands" argument. It's a term that means a person who has done something unethical that affects the case can't get the court's help.

Beauchesne denied the motion.

Darabi, who filed the lawsuits, has a different take.

"OK, you're illegal," Darabi said. "My job is to look at the violations. Your money is the same as everybody else's."

He also named as defendants the finance companies that provided the credit, claiming that they would have known instantly that the Social Security numbers provided by his clients were bogus. Yet, he said, they proceeded to make the loans.

"The lenders don't complain when they make profits," Darabi said. "In every single case, they knew about it. They take the risk."

He said client Susana Alvarez was angry that her husband, Eliseo DeAquino, was deported after being arrested when he took his car in for inspection.

"She said, 'That SOB (from Budget Motors) tricked us,'" Parviz said. "Take it (the lawsuit) as far as you can."

Which brings us back to the original question:

Should a person who is here illegally and used a fraudulent Social Security number to buy a car be able to sue the dealer for fraud?

Barring a settlement, a judge or jury will have the ultimate say.

In the meantime, the lawyers are sounding off.

To comment, click on the link with this column at www.modbee.com. Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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