Sometimes I wonder if we actually make a difference helping tenants here in Arizona, where the institutions serving tenants can be so corrupt, and so pro-landlord that we don’t even have the effect of a gnat on an elephant’s back.  But then something happens that makes me remember why I do this.

A tenant, Maria, called regarding an eviction.  Maria broke up with her abusive boyfriend and obtained a restraining order causing him to be removed from their apartment.  A couple of nights later the boyfriend broke down the apartment door, charged into her bedroom, and beat her up.  She had to go to the hospital and take off several days from work because of her injuries.  She also couldn’t leave her apartment because the door was down and her children were home.

Maria asked the apartment manager to fix the door, but the manager refused, saying it was Maria’s responsibility.  So Maria used her rent money to repair the door.  When rent came due, between missing days from work and repairing the door at her own expense, she couldn’t pay, and an eviction action was filed against her.

She called ATU and joined as a member, and I went over the eviction paperwork.  It was really poorly done.  First of all, the five day notice was improper: it did not specify that the tenancy would terminate if she did not pay rent within five days, which is a legal requirement.  It simply stated: “This is intended as the 5-day legal notice for the purpose of terminating your tenancy, in accordance with Arizona Revised Statute 33-1368.”  In fact, when Maria called us, she actually didn’t know that she had the opportunity to pay rent; she thought that because she hadn’t paid on time she had to move.  That’s what the manager told her when she asked.  Maria told me that her mother might have loaned her the money because her family was at risk, but she didn’t ask because the manager told her she had to move.  This is why technicalities are so important: it might seem obvious to one person that Maria had five days to pay the rent, but it wasn’t obvious to Maria.

Addtionally, the plaintiff named on the complaint was not the owner of the building.  It was a variation on the name, but the landlord operated through several similar-sounding corporations and the lawyer got it wrong.  I prepared pleadings that responded to the landlord’s paperwork and sent Maria to file them with the court.

On the day of the hearing a woman came out of the courtroom, took Maria into a side room and told her that the paperwork I prepared was invalid, and that Maria needed to sign the papers the woman handed to her and the woman would file them with the court.  She told Maria she didn’t need to stay for the hearing, but that she should go directly to the manager and work out a payment arrangement.  Maria, who was totally stressed and confused, didn’t ask who the woman was but did what she said: she signed the papers, left the court hearing and went to the manager.  The manager gave Maria additional paperwork that said that if she paid in full by a certain date the judgment would be satisfied.

Maria thought she had done well.  But when she told me what happened I couldn’t believe it.  I had her email me the court paper, and sure enough, it was prepared by the landlord’s attorney who represented herself as being from the court (or at least didn’t correct Maria’s misapprehension about the same).  By now Maria had borrowed the money from her mother and was prepared to pay the landlord the rent, late fees, court costs, attorney’s fees, etc. that were part of the judgment.  I told Maria DO NOT pay the manager until you get an agreement setting aside the judgments, for money and for possession.

Maria went to the landlord who presented her with a paper the lawyer had drawn up stating that with the receipt of the money the judgment was satisfied.  Again, Maria thought they were operating in good faith and that the paperwork was proper, but she had the good sense to call me.  Of course, the paper was meaningless:  it said the judgment was satisfied, not that it was set aside.  If Maria had not called me, she would have paid $4,000, everything she had in the world, and then a day or two later unexpectedly find herself and her children evicted and on the street.

These slimy landlords and their unscrupulous lawyers, tricking poor people who are in crisis to give up every last thing they have and then be evicted anyway!  It’s heinous.

I drafted a proper settlement agreement setting aside the judgments of both money and possession and gave it to Maria.  She brought them to the manager with the $4,000 and the manager gleefully accepted it.  Then, while I was at it, I helped Maria start the process of recovering the money she spent on the door, which was not her responsibility to fix.

The system doesn’t care about poor people like Maria who are struggling to make it.  And they don’t stand a chance going against cynical and unethical people like the manager and her lawyer without getting some kind of help.  But with the support provided to her by ATU, Maria was able to stay in her apartment and should hopefully be getting reimbursement for the door within a couple of weeks.

And that is why I do what I do.

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