***HELP*** Fire in building, tenant filed suit for illegal eviction and security deposit question

12 Replies

I May my one of my parents tenants in Compton, Ca caused a fire in one of their units which caused fire damage to their unit and water damage to the lower unit and adjacent unit.  The fire departments report determined that the fire was caused by the tenant throwing a cigarette into the trashcan, and also mentioned finding drugs on the premises.  The building is a LA Housing Authority Mod Rehab building (section 8 like program with weird rules, anyone familiar with this program please reach out) that they have owned for about 7 years.  

When my parents asked the Housing Authority about tenant relocation they knew very little about the program.  The Housing Authority and firre department declared the unit condemned due to the fire and smoke damage and the fact that the water, and gas were turned off.

Remediation and construction to repair damage were started immediately as my parents tried to decide if they would evict the tenant based on nuisance.  While construction was going on the tenant continued to access the property, use marijuana on the premises and get the way of construction workers.  Tenants were informed to call the owner if they needed to access the property doing construction so that they would not be injured in the condemned unit.  Tenants continued to access the property with no regard to instructions or their safety and on one occasion removed the entry door knob to install it on their bedroom door (breaking the door in the process).  For the safety of all parties and security of the construction site my father changed the entry knob and deadbolt and informed the tenant that if she gives 24hrs notice he can meet her to retrieve any belongings she may need.  

Without our knowledge Housing Authority canceled the tenants contract the week of the fire and sent notification of such to her.  Housing authority and the tenant both received notice from my parents to stop payment until the construction was complete.  Within 2 weeks of the locks being changed the tenant filed suit ($10,000) against my parents in small claims court claiming that she was illegally locked out of her home and denied access to her medicine which caused pain and suffering.  We did not receive notification of the housing authoruty canceling her contract until after we were be sued.  The tenant later made contact with my parents and moved her personal effects, refusing to sign a disclaimer stating that she is not being forced to move or being evicted by the owner.  At the time her home was a work site and we will be bringing pictures and documentation to court to support our case.

Does anyone have any suggestions in regards to how we should approach the case in court (7/28/15)?  Can we deduct the cost of the insurance deductible ($1,000) from the tenants security deposit?

Thanks In Advance for your answers and suggestions, and I hope I can add value to the board with by helping others with my areas of expertise (So Ca Single Family and Investment properties as well as real-estate contract law)

Check with your insurance if they can work about deal with these junk tenants.  Looks like they are just trying squeeze money out and destroy your parents property. If anything, you may consider collecting the damages caused by the fire from former tenants.

"No lawyers allowed in small claims court."

Doesn't mean you can't still go consult one for counsel and ask what they would do. You can still have counsel ongoing you just have to show up at court to represent yourself for small claims.

Sometimes cases can be moved up to a larger court where attorney representation is allowed.

No legal advice given. 

Pictures, statements from other people (insurance company, construction workers, firemen, etc...) and having witnesses (other tenants, workers at the property, etc...) are your best forms of defense. It will be a he-said.she-said unless there is proof. I've never been to court (thankfully), but being prepared and having facts is your best bet. Good luck!

Isn't small claims limited to 5,000? This is personal opinion and common sense based statement, what I would do is, I would gather statements from everyone who has knowledge, as previously mentioned, notarized if possible, and if it is still cost effective. Get police/fire department results with regards to mjs, ask what other drug paraphernalia was found in the room. Do a counter claim for the fire damage caused by the tenant, just in case you will be told by the court to pay something, the counter claim will help the court determine final figure, they will decide how much the tenant will owe you also, ie if the court sya you have to pay the tenant 3k, then if your counter case wins 4k for the tenant pays you 1k, something like that.

Consult with a lawyer when you do something, pick their brain so you will be ready to defend yourself.

Another option is to have a paralegal look at your paperworks before appearing, much more cost effective, specially if they work on a lawyers office and don't run a paralegal business.

Hi Clarence - 

She apparently entered and occupied a condemned building, and is now filing for compensatory damages in small claims... this looks like an easy dismissal. Visit nolo.com if you are going to small claims, it's an invaluable resource.

You may also have grounds to evict, depending upon the lease.

Best of luck!

Lawyer. That is the first step without a doubt. File a counter claim for enough in damages to push it up to big boy court. Contact the LA Housing Authority Mod and check their drug policy. Almost every program across the nation has serious restrictions on drug use. This family is just trying to screw you. Also look at filing trespassing charges and anything else the lawyer can come up with. THEY caused the fire and yet are trying to come after your family. I can assure you it's unlikely they have any assets to go after but you need to go after them big time so they have no leg to stand on.

Just wanted to thank everyone for their advice and provide an update on the scenario.  The initial judge heard the case and awarded the plaintiffs $800 to cover their security deposit.  My parents contested the award and the tenants failed to show for the next court date but unfortunately my parents were late and the judge gave them another court date.  Last week my parents went to court and the tenants failed to show up.  $0 out of pocket, close call, and a priceless lesson for all.  I learned more about commercial property fire maintenance requirements, my parents will incorporate for tax and personal protection.  Our paper trail was key (fire report, section 8 documents, text, emails, timeline etc).

@Clarence Johnson  If I remember it correctly, you can request that the case be move to regular court. Your lawyer can actually file this request. Also, this might be a case that you can get moved to landlord-tenant court.

This alone might be enough to get the tenant to run away. They are hoping to get their way in a small claims court, as it is very informal. But when you get to regular court, and need legal representation, they will back off.

Good luck.

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