By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
If you're a tenant in Huntington Beach, Garden Grove or Westminster and are suing your landlord for unfairly raising your rent, you'd better pray your case doesn't come before Orange County Superior Court Judge John M. Watson.
Last year, the California Commission for Judicial Performance reprimanded Watson for using his courtroom secretary and official stationery to threaten his own tenants with eviction when they complained about living conditions. But Watson continues to hear cases involving tenant-landlord disputes, and in a recent case profiled by the Weekly, he signed eviction orders against several tenants of a Huntington Beach complex who withheld rent when their landlord refused to treat their units for mold (see "Get Out or I'll Have You Arrested," Nov. 30).
Former Huntington Beach resident Beverly Payton is only the most recent person to discover that Watson could be just about the worst judge you could ever meet if you're a tenant with landlord issues. A disabled woman who lives on a fixed income of $887 per month in Supplemental Security Income payments, Payton had lived since 1993 in Hermosa Vista, a Huntington Beach apartment complex, where she paid only $650 in rent. Then, in November 2003, ownership of her building changed to a partnership of two developers, Village Investments and KDF Communities, LLC.
The new owners raised Payton's rent to $777 per month. New landlords raise rents all the time, but Payton had every reason to think her rent might actually be lower. That's because the previous year, the new building owners had received a $3.3 million affordable housing loan from the city of Huntington Beach to renovate Hermosa Vista as an exclusively low-income building. An Oct. 23, 2003, article in the Huntington Beach Wave stated that the company "agreed to make rents affordable to low-income families for 60 years in exchange for the [city] loan. . . . Low income residents already living there will pay less in rent."
In a recent interview, Payton claimed that after she complained she couldn't afford to pay higher rent, she was subjected to a harassment campaign aimed at forcing her to leave the building. "They were putting notes on my door every hour," Payton said. "They put a note on my door saying nobody in the building liked me. It was unbearable, but I kept thinking I could get things straightened out and have my rent lowered."
But that never happened. Unable to afford her higher rent, Payton ultimately left her unit at the Hermosa Vista complex in September 2005 and, with help from her church, found temporary housing in Long Beach. Meanwhile, she left several boxes of books in storage at the complex. When she returned a few weeks later for the books, they had been destroyed by a property manager, Eddie Leal. In December 2005, Payton filed a small claims court case against Leal, which she won.
In May 2006, Payton filed suit against the owners of Hermosa Vista and Leal but dropped the lawsuit when a company official promised to subsidize her rent until she could find federal low-income housing assistance. Two months ago, when after several months the official failed to follow up on that offer, Payton refiled her lawsuit.
In a Dec. 11 hearing in Judge Watson's courtroom, Watson told Payton that he had already determined that she was a "vexatious litigant" because she had filed too many lawsuits in connection with the case, including the successful small claims court case. He also told her that because she had repeatedly contacted the defendants in her lawsuit, they had filed restraining orders against her and that she risked five days in jail and a $1000 fine for every occasion she contacted them.
"I've been trying to mediate this out of court," Payton responded. "I should be getting the unit at a [lower] rate and then all this drama could have been avoided. I do not think I am a vexatious litigant because this has been very stressful to me."
During a break in the proceedings, Payton approached Earl Wallace, the lawyer representing Hermosa Vista and offered to drop her lawsuit if the building owner simply allowed her to return to the complex at a lower monthly rent payment. "The answer is 'no,'" Wallace said. "You're not going to get it. This has been over for a year. We're asking the judge to put you in jail. You're harassing people, calling them at work. . . . People don't have to talk to you if they don't want to. I don't want to talk to you anymore and neither do they. You bug everybody."
When Watson re-entered the courtroom, he instructed Payton to submit any material in her defense. When she began to shuffle her paperwork and began mumbling to herself, Watson yelled at her. "Give the bailiff everything you want me to read," he said. "Right now!"
A few minutes later, he told Payton to return to his courtroom on Jan. 22, at which time he'd let her know if her repeated efforts to convince her former landlord to reduce her rent and allow her to return to the building constitute several violations of her restraining order that will land in her jail. He all but promised Payton her lawsuit would be tossed out when Wallace asked him if he'd be ruling in his clients' favor. "All I can tell you is we're getting warm," Watson said.
Leal refused to be interviewed for the story. But in an interview outside the courtroom, an official with the company that owns Hermosa Vista claimed that Payton had been evicted for harassing her neighbors. "It had nothing to do with affordable housing," he added. "We did get a lot of money from the city to renovate the building. It needed renovation. Everybody who lives there qualifies for low-income housing. . . . She was a pain in the ass."