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
Several Huntington Beach tenants who complained about mold problems at their apartment complex have just lost their homes and must now pay tens of thousands of dollars in back rent. And they have one man to thank: Orange County Superior Court Judge John M. Watson—a judge whose history of hating tenants is legendary.
The California Commission for Judicial Performance officially admonished Watson last February after the Weekly reported (here and here) that he had used his courtroom secretary and official stationery to threaten one of his own tenants with eviction after she withheld rent because of faulty repairs. "Get out or I'll have you arrested," he said in one such letter.
Last month, Watson, who continues to hear cases involving tenant-landlord disputes, signed a preliminary ruling to evict a group of Huntington Beach tenants who refused to pay rent until their landlord removed mold from their units.
The day the Weekly reported that news (see "I Don't Care About Your Problem," Nov. 16), Watson issued his final ruling in the case—against the tenants. In doing so, they charge, he ignored photographs, videotapes and official reports they provided showing that their apartment units were plagued by mold, including clodosporium, epicoccum, penicillum, bronchiospasms, rhizopus/mucor and trichoderma—substances known to cause asthma, pulmonary emphysema and edema.
The tenants, all of whom asked to be identified only by their first names, say they're resolved to fight Watson's ruling and get a new trial by arguing that his past history as a landlord renders him incapable of fairly weighing the evidence in their case. One couple, Donald and Suzanne—whose unit Watson had previously declared uninhabitable—won't be evicted but must pay $10,000 in back rent and unspecified legal fees. The other two tenants, Mark, a chauffeur, and Deanne, a sales agent, now must leave their apartments and owe a combined total of $21,232.39 in back rent and unspecified attorney's fees to their landlord.
"This is ridiculous," said Deanne. "I imagine Watson didn't like our rebuttal to his initial ruling, because he increased the amount of back rent everybody owes when he wrote his final ruling. The back rent I owe went from $9,000 to $12,000. We're all trying to get a new trial because of his conflict of interest, but that won't allow us to keep our homes." Deanne said she's in the process of moving out of her unit to a friend's house. "I don't know where I'm going to move next. All the other buildings in this area cost $300 or $400 more per month to rent."
"We want to fight this in court, but none of us can afford attorneys and now we have to find somewhere else to live," said Mark. "To this day, no work has been done on our units and now they're just going to evict us and raise the rent. I guess it's back to the law library for us. We're not going to give up."
"I don't see how the judge can rule this way," said Don, a tow-truck driver. "Watson ruled that my apartment was uninhabitable, and to this day no work has been done. I don't owe these people a dime. We're going to take these people to the mat. Our kids are in the schools here and we can't afford to move out of the area."
Barbara Charters, the manager of the apartment building, refused to comment for this story. But another tenant—who said her mold was removed by the landlord and who testified against her neighbors in the case—claimed they got what they deserved. "I can tell you a lot of people around here will be happy when they're gone," said Cindy, who also requested to be identified only by her first name. "I was told by these tenants that they didn't want to pay rent. They just wanted to abuse and manipulate the system."
"She's just saying that because the landlord took care of her problem," said Mark. "What she says doesn't change anything. The ruling was still wrong and we want a new trial with a different judge. We're not going to let this happen to anyone else."