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Photo by Matt OttoMost renters expect to get screwed by their landlord. But not Leticia Bañuelos. When she rented a La Habra condo two years ago, she was comforted by the fact that her landlord was John M. Watson, an Orange County Superior Court Judge.
Judges are supposed to be models of fairness. They're certainly expected to know the law—and adhere to it. But Bañuelos says Watson violated her rights as a tenant repeatedly over a two-year period by refusing to pay for necessary repairs, artificially raising her rent and threatening her with legal retaliation when she complained.
Bañuelos sued Watson in small-claims court when he withheld part of her security deposit. She dropped her claim last month when Watson finally paid her. But by that time, she had already complained about Watson's conduct to the State of California Commission on Judicial Performance, which refuses to say whether it's investigating her complaint.
This is not the first time Watson's conduct has been brought to the attention of his overlords. As R. Scott Moxley first reported in the Weekly four years ago, Watson had an official courtroom policy of forcing lawyers and witnesses who appeared before him to divulge whether they were HIV-positive ("Juvenile Justice," Feb. 18, 2000).
Through a courthouse bailiff, Watson declined to be interviewed for this story. But on Aug. 7, he told The Orange County Register that he hadn't done anything wrong. However, Bañuelos provided the Weekly with documents showing that Watson had directed his personal secretary at the Orange County Superior Courthouse—a county employee named Kathy Growsky—to handle telephone calls about his rental property. Bañuelos also provided documents that show he used courthouse stationery to threaten Bañuelos when she complained about his shortcomings as a landlord.
Bañuelos' problems started shortly after she began renting the condo from Watson in April 2001, when she asked him to replace a broken shower head, several kitchen drawers and fixtures, window blinds, and damaged electrical outlets, plus fix the condo's malfunctioning air-conditioning system. She called Watson at the courthouse and spoke to his secretary, who told her that Watson would pay only half of whatever repairs were necessary.
"He reimbursed me for $170, which was half of what I spent," Bañuelos said. "I let [Growsky] know that I wasn't comfortable talking to her because I was renting from him. She said he was a very busy man and that she handles these types of matters for him."
In September 2001, Bañuelos says, her boyfriend skipped work on five separate days, waiting for an electrician to show up at the condo to make repairs Growsky had scheduled. "My boyfriend would stay at home and wait, and nobody would show up," she said. "He lost wages sitting around and waiting. Finally, an electrician came and said the circuit breakers were so old that the wattage in the condo was too low and didn't have enough power for all the appliances. It was so frustrating that I went to the courthouse."
Bañuelos got her meeting with Watson, but not the kind she hoped for. "He was walking at a fast pace out of the courtroom and motioned for the bailiff to come with him," she recalled. "He was very upset I was there and told me he was going to evict me. From that point, I knew I was in for a tough time and I had to document everything or else he would screw me."
So Bañuelos saved every letter she sent Watson and, more important, every letter he wrote her.
"You refuse to communicate with us directly," she wrote in a Sept. 27, 2001, letter. "You refuse or intentionally delay requested repairs. . . . The Fair Housing Council of Orange County has advised me that you are responsible in handling the electric and plumbing repairs in the unit I rent from you."
In response, Watson wrote Bañuelos on courthouse stationery an Oct. 10 letter threatening to raise her rent. "If you continue to cause needless repairs for such things as washers or sending electricians out to flip a switch in a fuse box, those added costs will result in not renewing the lease when it expires . . . or raising the rent a few hundred dollars a month," he said.
In March 2002, Watson offered to let Bañuelos continue renting the condo, but for an additional $125 per month. She and her boyfriend decided to move out a few months later. The final straw in her relationship with Watson came when he withheld about $200 from her security deposit, which he claimed was to cover unspecified "legal and secretarial expenses."
"When I left that apartment, it was immaculate," Bañuelos said. "For him to deduct 'legal fees' that were done by a county employee is just wrong."
She sued Watson in small-claims court. As the case neared its first hearing, Watson sent her a July 7, 2004, letter threatening to subpoena her son. "I would also appreciate your cooperation in issuing a subpoena for your son in a manner that would not cause either him or yourself any undue stress such as the sheriff showing up at your home or his school, etc.," Watson wrote. "Please write me and tell me your thoughts on this."
Instead of sharing her thoughts with Watson, Bañuelos lodged official complaints with the Orange County Superior Court, where Watson works, and the State of California Commission on Judicial Performance. Just days later, Bañuelos says Watson called her. Except for her courtroom confrontation, it was the first time she had spoken directly to her landlord since April 2001.
"He said he wanted to settle with me," she said. "He was so polite on the phone I could not believe it. He was very cordial, very nice. I was blown away."