By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
In October 2005, Deanne noticed a strange smell in her Huntington Beach apartment. When she lifted up a board beneath her kitchen sink, she discovered a mess of damp, rotted wood, blackened with months, maybe years, of accumulated mold.
After two months and 10 letters to her landlord, nothing was done, said Deanne, who asked to be identified only by her first name. Finally, she says she told the landlord, "I'm going to withhold rent if you don't fix the mold." Three days later, she says, in January, "I was threatened with eviction. Most people just move, but anyone who complains about the mold or asks for repairs is evicted."
Deanne wasn't alone. Two of her neighbors, who also asked not to be identified by their surnames, also complained about mold and faulty repairs to their units and had been served with eviction notices. Together, they went to court, had their units declared "uninhabitable," and withheld rent payments until the repairs were completed. But then the judge in the case resigned from the bench, and the renters ran into the infamous Judge John M. Watson.
Watson quickly reviewed the evidence, including reports showing the presence of four hazardous types of mold in the units and, on Oct. 20, he sided with the landlord. His final ruling is expected any day, and the tenants say he'll require them to pay thousands of dollars in back rent and attorney's fees; two of the plaintiffs say the decision means they'll lose their homes.
That outcome might come as no surprise to those familiar with Judge Watson and his history of hating tenants who complain about their landlords. That's because Watson, in his other capacity as a landlord, has tried to evict his own tenants under eerily similar circumstances.
Two years ago, Watson was sued by Leticia Banuelos, a tenant at his La Habra condo, for his refusal to make repairs. When Banuelos demanded he follow through on his promises to fix broken appliances, Watson tried to evict her. "I am sick of you, sick of your letters and sick of your being rude to [my secretary]," he wrote. "I don't care about your problem. I want you out. Get out or I'll have you arrested."
Watson used his taxpayer-funded courtroom secretary—and official courtroom stationery—to send that letter and others to Banuelos (see "Judge, Jury, Landlord," Aug. 12, 2004). So she complained to the California Commission on Judicial Performance. On Feb. 21, 2006, the commission officially admonished Watson for abusing his authority.
That humiliation hasn't kept Watson from hearing cases involving landlords trying to evict tenants who complain about their living conditions.
Besides Deanne, the tenants in Watson's most recent case include Donald, a tow-truck driver who provided the Weekly with lab reports showing the presence of five types of hazardous mold in one of the units. The lab results showed colonies of cladosporium, epicoccum, penicillum, bronciospasms, rhizopus/mucor and trichoderma. Common symptoms of long-term exposure to such substances, the report noted, can lead to asthma, pulmonary emphysema and edema.
Donald said he and his wife had lived in the apartment complex for three years when, in October 2005, they complained to their landlord about mold in their kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and hall closet. "Right after that, we got an [eviction] notice," he said.
In January, Donald went to court, and Superior Court Judge Richard Beacom, who was originally assigned the case, declared his unit uninhabitable. Their landlord moved them to another unit, but then demanded several thousand dollars in back rent. When Beacom retired from the bench a few months later, Judge Watson took over the case.
"Half the time, Watson wasn't paying attention in court," said Donald's wife, Suzanne. "He'd pretend to be falling asleep, like he was bored."
When Donald refused to pay until the landlord paid for a study to prove the mold had been removed, they were hit with another eviction notice. So were their neighbors, Deanne and Mark, a chauffeur who had been served with an eviction notice after complaining about a broken balcony.
In his Oct. 20 ruling, Watson allowed Donald and Suzanne to remain in their unit, but awarded their landlord unspecified attorney's fees. Deanne, a single mother of four, and Mark the chauffeur were less lucky. "[Deanne] basically refused to cooperate with [the landlord] and her credibility was dubious at best," Watson wrote. He ruled that Deanne must leave the unit and pay her landlord $9,975 in back rent, costs and attorney's fees.
And Mark the chauffeur? Watson found that he was "credible" in his testimony, a good tenant "before this dispute," and therefore urged the landlord to allow him to remain a resident of the complex. Nonetheless, Watson awarded the landlord possession of Mark's apartment along with $6,925 in back rent, attorney's fees and costs.
Deanne says she's been living out of boxes for the past few months, unsure if she'll be evicted.
Pending Watson's final ruling, the tenants assume they'll have to move and pony up thousands of dollars in back rent and attorney's fees. They were reluctant to speak to the press, lest they anger the judge. But in their Oct. 27 challenge to Watson's preliminary ruling, they wrote: "In general, your rulings are incomprehensible and without legal foundation. It is apparent that your judgment was clouded and that you did not review the evidence provided by the defendants in this case."
So far, the tenants have represented themselves in the case. But Donald said he and the others are hiring an attorney to appeal their case. They also plan to complain to the Commission on Judicial Performance, alleging that Watson's history as a landlord proves he's incapable of fairness in the courtroom.
"We just want to be left alone," Donald's wife Suzanne said. "Our youngest kid said, 'If we're homeless and we have to live in the truck, can I keep my cat?' All the kids are stressed out. Every time they see a note on the door, they think we're being evicted."