The Case of the Locked-Out Tenant Who Hired an Attorney

This case is about a tenant who fought a bad landlord and the hard-working attorney she hired. Based on the antics of the landlord, the court eventually awarded the tenant a considerable amount to money.

The court even labelled the landlord as “vexatious.” In law, it means that the court categorized the landlord as a party who brings actions purely to cause annoyance.

The case Fernandes v. Raj Singh et al. was originally heard in the Sacramento Superior Court and then went to the Court of Appeal. Both times the landlord lost.

The case opinion from the Court of Appeal skips around a bit, as opinions do. For this blog I have rewritten the facts chronologically so it’s more understandable. I also included the landlord as meaning Singh, his wife Rawat, and a Trust. These parties later tried to claim they weren’t all one entity, but the court didn’t believe them.

How it began

Fernandes, a waitress at Denny’s, lived in a rental unit that violated the warranty of habitability. Understandably, she complained about these conditions to the landlord.

The landlord filed the first of three unlawful detainer actions against the tenant by using a false name to evade the pre-filing requirements of the vexatious litigant statutes. (This suggests that the landlord has done this sort of thing many times with other tenants.)  That case was dismissed for non-appearance of the parties.

About a year later, the landlord filed a second unlawful detainer action. The tenant prevailed and obtained a conditional judgment which both reduced her rent and required the landlord to repair her home. At the progress hearing about two months later, no repairs had been completed.

Now the lockout

Six months later, the landlord filed a third unlawful detainer action. The landlord falsely stated the amount of the unpaid rent by disregarding the conditional judgment. The landlord also filed a fraudulent proof of service. Because Fernandes was not properly served, she never responded to the unlawful detainer. The landlord had her default entered and then obtained an eviction order.

The landlord had the sheriff evict her and then changed the locks. The tenant came home from her job as a waitress working the graveyard shift at Denny’s and found herself locked out and deputies blocking her entrance. She could not retrieve even her basic possessions like food and clothing. She was forced to stay with friends and struggled to keep her job.

In 2013, a county code officer inspected the property at the request of subsequent tenants and found the same code violations that Fernandes had endured while living there. The landlord refused to make repairs and then served a 3-day notice to quit on those tenants.

The tenant fights back

The landlord did not comply with a court order to return Fernandes her property that had been in her home when she was locked out. She did find some of her things in the trash can, which had to have been quite demeaning.

Fernandes sued Singh and his wife Rawat, as well as their Trust, for breach of the warranty of habitability, conversion of personal property (which means they wrongfully took her stuff), and wrongful eviction.

An unusual twist

Former attorney Keith Oliver filed an answer for the landlord, denying allegations and raising an affirmative defense that Fernandes breached her rental agreement. Oliver would later be disbarred in part because he failed to pay sanctions the court ordered for filing a frivolous appeal in another case involving the exact same landlord.

But who wrote the legal documents?

A second unusual twist related to the pleadings in this lawsuit, which included a cross-complaint. The trial court noted that the pleadings had Keith Oliver’s caption and were purportedly signed by him. However, the contents appeared not to be written by an attorney. According to the trial court, Oliver may have acted as a “puppet” for the landlord. First the trial court charitably called the cross-complaint “unstructured,” but then they called it “unintelligible and self-contradictory.” Did Oliver really write the legal documents?

The outcome of Fernandes’ case

In 2014, Singh began representing himself, and filed, according to the court opinion, “various bizarre pleadings.”

The trial court found that the landlord acted with “oppression, fraud or malice, both actual and implied.” The court called the conduct “despicable.” That’s strong wording from a court.

Punitive damages equal monetary punishment

If a landlord acts with oppression, fraud or malice, the tenant is entitled to punitive damages.  Punitive damages are monetary amounts intended to punish one of the parties, in this case the landlord.

At a hearing on the punitive damages, Singh would not explain his financial condition or list his properties. Instead, he claimed HE had suffered financial harm and was entitled to damages of over $200,000 and sanctions against the tenant of $1,000,000.

The court ruled that the landlord’s failure to comply with the order to disclose his financial condition barred any of his objections.

The court awarded to the tenant $350,000.

Yet the fight goes on

The landlord tried to modify the ruling, saying  his wife Rawat was never properly served. The trial court denied that motion and awarded the tenant an additional $87,894, plus the $350,000 in punitive damages, plus costs, prejudgment interest and attorney fees.

Rawat also claimed she had never been served, that she had not hired the later disbarred attorney Oliver, and she did not sign any discovery documents filed by Oliver. The trial court denied the landlord’s motion to vacate the judgement. Because of the motion, the court granted the tenant additional attorney fees of $21,595 and costs of $1,310.

Off to the Court of Appeal

The landlord appealed. The court rejected all of the claims by Rawat, including the lack of service.

Regarding the appeal of Singh, the court’s actual wording is so good it’s worth quoting.

The court said that Singh’s legal brief “flagrantly disregards appellate norms.” His pleading states “the facts in the light favorable to himself.” It relies “on facts unsupported by the record,” and that it makes “incoherent legal arguments.”

Digging through the pleading, the court noted that “we discern four issues presented with sufficient clarity to merit discussion.” With that kind of statement by the court, you can see how this is going to go. The court found no merit in his claims.

It was a hard fight by the tenant, but she won with the aid of a hard-working attorney. I’m glad.

Wondering about what the laws regarding your rent-controlled home? Have you received an eviction notice and are unsure what to do next? You should consider talking to an experienced tenant attorney who can help you with your issues.

Know your rights. Protect yourself.

 

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Mary Catherine Wiederhold

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