Thursday, June 24, 2010

Legal Advice Re: Psycho Renters?

I know, everybody's always trying to scam free legal advice, and I hate to be one of those people--but this is, in fact, a worthy cause, and the renovation debacle has left us flat broke. So I thought I'd give it a try.

Here's the sitch:

K has been on leave from her Ph.D. program for a couple of years. During that time, we rented out the condo in Chapel Hill. We used, and have always had great luck with renters. This time, however, we got some kind of kindergarten teacher or something, and she turned out to be a criminal kook. We made lots of mistakes, as you'll see below.

First, she never sent us back a signed copy of the lease, so we don't have one.

Second, we handled the utilities in a somewhat odd way, though a way that was clearly explained to said kook verbally, and in the lease, and she clearly understood it and agreed to it. Here's how it worked: to avoid connection fees for both her and us, we included a certain amount in the lease for utility payments, based on average usage for two people. If, at the end of a certain month, the tenant was under that amount, we'd refund the difference. If they were over, we'd total up all the overages and take payment (usually out of the security deposit (or quasi-security deposit) at the end of the lease.

Third, we agreed to pay for the water.

Fourth, we agreed that her parents and their dog could stay with her for a month or so when they moved down to CH.

In about February, we informed her that she was consistently going over on utilities, using, for example, almost twice as much water as we had ever used. She noted that water was included, and we agreed, but pointed out that we had only used that as an example, and that electricity use was through the roof as well. Then she started to make weird claims about the lease being "ambiguous," but would not specify how it was, and she refused to return our calls. About a month later, she claimed that the lease was ambiguous concerning its length, in one place saying 11 months, in one saying 12. We told her she could interpret it in either way she wanted. About last month, she said that the clause concerning utilities was ambiguous, but would not specify in what way. Then she claimed that she expected a refund--thus clearly indicating that she understood and accepted the lease agreement concerning utilities. When we pointed that out to her, she quit pushing that line, and began saying that there was no lease agreement at all, since she had not returned the original. We informed her that, if she did not pat the almost $300 she owes us in utilities, we'd have to keep it out of the $1k she gave us as a security deposit (or: quasi-security deposit...I'll explain below). Today she sent an e-mail, obviously written by a lawyer, but with her signature under it, claiming that in NC one can only withhold money from a security deposit for a few reasons, and unpaid charges of the kind we're talking about do not seem to be among them. Her e-mails are dishonest in the extreme, packed full of legalese, and each refutation of one of her slimy points is met with slimy new attempts to screw us over. She is arrogant, none too bright, possibly a little crazy, and possibly kind of loony.

Of course she will not pay up when we check her out at the beginning of July, and, of course, we will keep the money she owes us out of the $1k she gave us.

More data:

Her parents and their dog stayed with her for the entire 11-month period, instead of the "month or so" we had agreed to--but there was nothing in the lease about it.

Her father just retired, and he is a lawyer--a lawyer who seems to have taken the short bus to law school, but a lawyer nevertheless.

Fun fact: according to our neighbors, they never leave the house except to go to church. No comment on that one...

So, we'll almost certainly end up in small claims court.

Any thoughts/advice on this would be appreciated.


Blogger The Mystic said...

Three words:

Judge Joe Mathis.

4:01 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

By the way, I recognize that my previous post counts as neither advice nor thought, so you don't have to appreciate it.

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are in equitable territory, that is, the "fairness" of the situation will control, not any agreement you had (as there is no written document to rely upon). You are in good shape if you devote yourself to the equitable grounds of your case and don't rely upon an "agreement" that was never signed or returned. Courts have wide latitude to create remedies for clearly unfair situations. In this case quantum meruit is a great legal have provided services without compensation and are entitled to compensation for those services.

In any event, I would advise you to simply go with the facts you have, not try to make the case that there was in fact a written agreement if in fact there is not one. Round peg, square hole, etc. Your legal case is fine so long as you rely upon equitable grounds, have the proper evidence (utility bills before and during her tenancy, etc.), and come across as the "reasonable" party.

Finally, possession is 9/10 of the law. Make her sue you to get the money back. If you refund it and then try to collect, well, that just doesn't work as well....

This is a lot of platitudes, but they are generally applicable. Sorry about your situation, but have faith that the courts can see unfairness when the facts are presented clearly by a sympathetic litigant. Again, keep the deposit and make sure you send the correct letter necessary to justify your withholding of the deposit (check the state statutes).

1:02 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks to Anonymous, and to Billy P and his lawyer cousin for encouraging advice.

2:20 PM  

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