SONOMA COUNTY (CBS 5) — As the California rental market heats up, landlords need to do their homework.
Connie Cook bought a Sonoma County property eleven years ago, hoping to spend her retirement years there. Her plan was to rent out the converted barn to help pay the mortgage.
That plan was working well, that is until a single mother moved in with her teenage son in 2009.
Soon afterward, Gwen Smith, the new tenant, started complaining that a gas leak and unhealthy water were making the apartment uninhabitable.
Then, Smith stopped paying rent. But when Cook tried to evict her, Smith, who has a law degree, fought back in court by filing motion after motion – all while paying no rent.
A judge eventually ruled that Smith’s conduct was “malicious,” and her numerous court filings amounted to “tactical delay.” He awarded Cook $49,000. But, unfortunately for Cook, Smith appealed the judgment, and that case is still pending.
It turns out this wasn’t the first time Smith had stopped paying her rent.
As Connie Cook’s finances dwindled, she turned to her local legal aid office, which told her they knew Gwen Smith. They called her “notorious.”
Sebastopol homeowner Barbara Wilt rented part of her house to Smith in 2008.
A few weeks after moving in, Smith allegedly changed the locks, and began complaining that the apartment was uninhabitable.
But, when Wilt tried to enter the house to fix the alleged problems, she was met with a nasty surprise: the police.
Smith had called the police claiming someone was trying to break in. In one encounter, Smith even pepper sprayed Wilt.
“I just felt this liquid on my face, started swelling up, couldn’t see, it was horrible,” said Wilt.
When Wilt took Smith to court, Smith countersued, claiming she and her son suffered “property damage, illness, infections, and emotional trauma” – all from living in Wilt’s “hellish basement.”
Wilt eventually won a default judgment for more than $42,000. But Smith appealed that judgment as well.
A month ago, after three years of legal battles and a trip to the Supreme Court of California, the Supreme Court ruled in Wilt’s favor, upholding the judgment against Smith.
And that’s just two cases. CBS 5 found a total of eight judgments in eviction proceedings against Smith in four states.
Smith’s law degree helped her work the system, but experts say California’s tenant protection laws worked to her advantage.
According to attorney Jim Sansone, tenants can withhold rent while a case is pending. Faced with motion after motion, most landlords, he said, simply give up.
“I have a lot of landlords who come to me and say, you know what, I am going to figure out what the cost of defense is, and I am going to offer that to the tenant and waive all my rights,” said Sansone.
CBS 5 offered Smith a chance to share her side of the story. After two weeks we tracked her down to the small town of Forestville.
Smith wouldn’t speak with us, and her most recent landlord didn’t want his name used. But, he did tell CBS 5 that Smith stayed for three months without paying rent.
The day after our encounter with Smith, she moved out of the Forestville home. Her whereabouts now are unknown.
Meanwhile, Barbara Wilt is still waiting to collect on her judgment.
“I still am just so flabbergasted and shocked and so disappointed and disillusioned with our justice system,” Wilt said.
Connie Cook is still waiting for her money too. But, even if she gets it, it is already too late. Living on Social Security and with no rental income, Cook fell behind on her mortgage payments and lost her farmhouse to foreclosure.
“It breaks my heart, just breaks my heart,” Cook said.
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)