Friday, July 28, 2006

My big day in court, round 1

Today I had the court hearing regarding my favorite tenants, the ones with the aggressive dogs who have not paid rent since June.

First, a few brief updates. I tried cashing their June rent check again at their bank for at least the 20th time. This time the bank clerk accidentally revealed more information than she was supposed to, informing me that the bank account had been closed. Looks like I'm not going to get paid this way. Also, the second quarter water bill came in and, like the first, water usage was far above normal levels. This has been a problem ever since they've moved in, I'm not quite sure what it is that they're doing. There is not a leak, but their water is usually running when I go over.

Ok, so now the court hearing:

I showed up at the court house 20 minutes early. There were about 10 people waiting to go in, but neither my lawyer nor tenants were there. About 5 minutes after sitting, the female tenant showed up with her ~3 year old daughter. We nodded at each other, but that was all and she passed me to sit a few benches down. Then my lawyer showed up, and we left for the stairwell to go over over the process. There were a few strategies that I wanted to discuss with him, like how the dog situation fit into today's eviction proceedings. Yes, the eviction was initially over the dogs, but after serving the Notice to Cease they stopped paying rent, which was then included as an additional reason for the eviction. It turns out that it is much quicker and cleaner to evict somebody over non-payment of rent, so that was to be our initial plan of attack. If for some reason they end up paying the rent in full, we will just continue the eviction process over the dogs, although it will take a few additional weeks. At least I wouldn't be out so much money.

My lawyer wanted to talk to the tenant to determine where she stood. This was the first major advantage of having a lawyer represent me. He could communicate on less hostile ground than I, which allowed us know what we were dealing with and plan accordingly. When he went to talk with her, I sat in the courtroom. She explained to him that she would not be able to pay in the time required to avoid eviction. Like too many tenants, she mentioned that she was expecting to receive a lot of money "next month" in a settlement, which besides from being unlikely was an excuse she gave me back in June.

Inside the courtroom, we watched a video describing the rights of both the landlord and the tenant. They then read the order in which the cases would be heard, and called a recess for 10 minutes during which they encouraged everybody to talk over the case to see if an agreement could be reached before trial. The clerk came over to us to ask if we had settled or were actually going to have a trial. We told her how the tenant was not going to pay, and she handed us a blank Judgment of Possession form to fill out. We decided not to push for monetary damages on the JoP, but indeed reserved the right to go to small claims court afterwards. The thought was that we'll wait until they are out of the house and we know how much money they owe, including late fees, attorney fees, repair fees, and unpaid rent. My lawyer then brought it over to the tenant, who also signed it. The clerk informed us that we'd still have to meet before the judge.

Getting a Judgment of Possession was the sole purpose of the day. Three business days after the JoP is filed, we can get a Warrant of Removal and schedule a time for the sheriff to lock the tenant out.

When we were called in front of the judge, she already had the JoP in front of her. The tenant carried her daughter on her way to the table, and of course had very teary eyes trying to gain sympathy. The judge asked the tenant, "Are you sure this is what you want to do?", at which point the attorney from Legal Services asked the judge if she could have a moment with the tenant. The judge agreed, and the tenant and newfound attorney went out into the hall, followed by the judge, followed by my attorney. This was another time where it paid to have my lawyer there. It would have been unacceptable for me to accompany them and monitor the situation, but not for him. He went right out there to make sure things didn't get too out of control. Even so, I was a little anxious waiting. I wanted to make sure that if for some reason the rent issue was set aside, the dog one was brought up.

Eventually they all came back and nothing had changed, the JoP still stood. There is really nothing that can be done for a tenant who has not, and cannot, pay rent. While she has other options, like applying for Section 8 housing and finding a different apartment, she will not be able to stay in my apartment without paying me.

We went back before the judge, who again asked the tenant if this is what she wanted to do. She started shrugging and saying that she really had no other options, at which point the judge cut her off and declared it finalized. The JoP stands, and next Thursday we'll file for the Warrant of Removal.

Overall, I think the day was very successful. I am extremely pleased with the job that my lawyer did. There are so many nuances that I definitely would have messed things up had I went without him.

Now, again, we wait...

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