The Old Woman and the Court

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I have never been in court, on either side of the law, never as plaintiff or defendant. But I was chosen to serve on a San Francisco jury this week. The judge said it would only take a day and a half, and that’s what it took. It was an “unlawful detainer” case, meaning a landlord sought to evict a tenant.

The defendant was an elderly Filipina with less than perfect English, not represented by counsel (defending herself), with poor eyesight and poor hearing. She was poor, qualified for that reason to live in a BMR (below market rate) unit in a new high rise building south of Market. It was a small studio. She’d been there since 2013, but the trouble began in August 2015, when a termite inspector reported finding bedbugs in her unit. A second inspection reported same. The inspector said certain items of upholstered furniture were heavily infested. There was no trouble with payment of rent. She always paid on time. There were no other complaints from the landlord.

The plaintiff’s lawyer presented witnesses attesting to bedbugs, and to her failure to agree to the remediation as required in the bedbug addendum to the lease–which essentially said if there are bedbugs, you are responsible for all costs of getting rid of them, regardless of whether you agree you have them or whether it can be proved that your unit is the source of the infestation, which the plaintiff did not try to prove. She was told the cost to her for taking her belongings out, freezing them, and returning them would be $3,700. Some furniture probably could not be returned.

She was very polite to the judge, plaintiff counsel, and the jury. No one questioned her honesty, but some questioned her comprehension of the issues. She declined to cross examine any witness, clearly unsure how to do that. So, her view of the dispute came only through her one opportunity to testify. She said she had no bedbugs, and now has no bedbugs. She said the pest inspector did not find any when he looked, that they looked together, both times. She said she was asked repeatedly to sign the agreement for remediation, without being given the opportunity to read the agreement. She said management stopped communicating with her since September when the legal process of eviction was started. She asked, why are they evicting me? I don’t have a place to go. I will be homeless.

In the jury room, 8 of 12 jurors felt it was clear–she signed the lease and the addendum. Whether the terms were fair or not was not within our instructions to opine. The 8 felt the pest service must be right about the bedbugs. 4 of us felt not so sure about that.  I kept asking how can someone live in a small heavily infested unit since August and not experience any of the common conditions of bedbugs–such as lots of bites? While she had poor eyesight, she carried a magnifying glass to read, and it seemed to me she would have seen bedbugs if they were there.

There was much debate about the strange #3 of the 7  questions that each of the jurors were required to vote on–whether her unit was neat and tidy, as required to minimize the opportunity for bedbugs. If not, she was in violation. If so, she was not. She admitted to having most of her possessions in boxes, stacked along the walls, some higher than her short height. One of the 4 of us reluctant to rule against her said her own home was like that–but everything was neat and in order. There were no photographs provided to help us judge. She said it was neat, they said it was not. How were we to know?

After several exchanges with the judge for clarification of instructions to the jury and points of law, and further debate, 2 or the 4 reluctant jurors changed their opinion, thus getting to the 9 of 12 required to reach a verdict favoring the landlord. The verdict was that she had violated the agreement and she could be evicted. The only small comfort was that the 4 with reservations persuaded the group that no damages whatsoever should be granted the landlord, because everyone felt the landlord handled the matter very poorly. Plaintiff’s counsel polled each juror on each question. I voted no and no on violation and eviction.

Here are my questions and concerns:

  • Why couldn’t she have been convinced by the landlord that there were bedbugs (if there were) and it was important to eliminate them?
  • If there was no proof that she was the originator, why didn’t the landlord offer to pay for the remediation?
  • And, most important, why didn’t she have a lawyer?

A solution to all this could have been reached short of court, and if not, more evidence in her defense might well have resulted in a different conclusion.

There was very little room in the specific instructions given the jury, for any weight for fairness–only in the matter of damages–and the limit was zero–i.e., we had no option to have the defendant reimbursed.

What we hope for and what we want to believe is this: That the “system” available to those in peril in our society is a combination of the rule of law (our court system) and benevolent government and philanthropic support. And, we also hope that the wealthy party in opposition to one of our underprivileged will go the extra mile–trying hard to resolve disputes before they get to the courts. They didn’t do that in this case. It seemed to me it would have cost the landlord far less to pay for the remediation and work with the tenant to resolve the matter. But this case was rushed through the system and the system failed, in my strong opinion.

This is yet another example of how our politics, our government, and our unrestrained capitalist system, taken together, fail the underprivileged in our society.

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