08 March 2012
Q: One of my former tenants took me to small claims court over her security deposit. She claims that I was unreasonable in spending all of it because she claims she had a cleaning crew come through the place before she moved out. Well I don't know if she used a cleaning crew or a wrecking crew, because the place was trashed. Anyway, the judge in the small claims court apparently liked her, and I guess I lost my temper at the hearing. When all the dust settled, the judge ordered me to pay her! Go figure. The little paper says that I have time to appeal this decision if I want to. I basically wanted to know what happens in the event of an appeal and whether or not I could have a lawyer handle it.
A: A small claims appeal is a "trial de novo," that is, the appellate hearing will be a "new trial." You, as the Defendant, essentially get another chance to prove your case. By and large, the structure of the proceeding is essentially the same. However, on a small claims appeal, as opposed to the initial small claims proceeding, you may have an attorney represent you. In your situation, if you're afraid that you might lose your temper again, call a lawyer who will talk about the case with you. Of course, there are times when it's simply more cost effective to "go it alone," when the amount you're fighting over is less than the cost of retaining counsel. If this is the case for you, and you really feel that you were not treated fairly in the small claims court, then appeal the decision. Just remember to take a deep breath out in the hallway.
Q: A young couple responded to a recent advertisement for a two-bedroom apartment. The couple came over to the property and like always, I show everyone the very same unit. I really didn't think these kids would fit in with my more mature residents, so I told them about the big mega apartment complex down the street. I have recently attended a property management training class put on by the local apartment association and I was told that my conduct was discriminatory. I was looking at the interests of the applicant; I truly didn't think they would enjoy themselves. Was my conduct in violation of the anti-discriminatory laws?
A: Yes. You cannot "steer" certain prospective residents to another complex that you think they'd like better. Do not attempt to discourage prospective residents by saying, "You wouldn't like it here—it's too noisy" or "There are mostly adults living here, so your children wouldn't have anyone to play with." Additionally, be truthful about vacancies. Don't say that there are no units available when, in fact, there are units available. Clearly, this also applies to the sizes and types of units available. Don't pretend that there are no two-bedroom units available or no units with other desirable features, if there actually are. Don't deliberately show certain prospective residents the least desirable vacancies on the property. The key is fairness—it is illegal to show only the units that are dirty, damaged or otherwise unattractive to certain prospective residents, while showing clean, attractive units to others.