April 28, 2012(Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Owning and managing rental property is never a piece of cake. Even when experienced landlords use a property manager and have excellent legal representation, there will be an occasional problem.
Those landlords understand that they are in a business where mistakes can have very real, expensive consequences. Of course, one of the worst possible is not only failing to get rid of a problem tenant when doing so is fairly easy, but in handing that tenant a business card that reads, “I’m a moron and you can stay for as long as you like.”
And that’s exactly what know-it-all Johnny would wind up doing, clueless to how he got himself into the last situation he would ever have wanted.
Last week, we told you how fate one day put him in charge of his father’s multi-million dollar business, which included several commercial rentals. In this case, fate had a medical name: myocardial infarction, otherwise known as a killer heart attack.
Unsuited by personality to be a landlord
Johnny’s father did not equip his son with adequate business survival skills. Where dad was known as being upfront, direct, a no-nonsense kind of man, the son was passive, refusing to return important phone calls, even to the people whose help he desperately needed. One was “Lawyer A,” who Johnny hired to negotiate a move-out of a problem tenant.
“This tenant was always late with the rent, but there were others eager to move into the property,” his lawyer told You and the Law.
“There is only one way to deal with a tenant who is chronically late with rent when you have quality tenants waiting to move in,” Hanford attorney Ron Jones tells “You and the Law.”
“You serve a statutory notice to move, and do nothing which could be seen as compromising your ability to evict them. If you have never been through this process before, then you want either a property management company or real estate attorney to become involved immediately. You would be surprised at the numbers of landlords who don’t get legal advice, tell the tenant that he has to move, but in a shortsighted effort to just collect more rent, do the absolute worst thing possible,” Jones adds.
And that is exactly what Johnny did before hiring Lawyer A.
“Aware that Johnny wanted him to move, the tenant orally offered to keep rent payments current and add $750 to the past due amounts if he could remain for a year more. Johnny agreed,” Lawyer A told You and the Law.
“For three months, the tenant did in fact pay the current rent, plus the $750 additional. Johnny thought that because it was an oral agreement concerning a rental, what they agreed to didn’t matter, and the tenant could still be evicted as if nothing happened!” the attorney explained.
“I told Johnny that he had created a mess for himself, because you can have an oral tenancy for up to one year, and by collecting the additional payments, his only way out was to negotiate a reasonable timeframe for the tenant to move. If this went to court, we would almost certainly lose and be ordered to pay the tenant’s attorney fees. Johnny authorized me to begin negotiating the tenant’s move-out. And then, he stopped communicating with me!” this very frustrated attorney told us.
No way to treat your lawyer
Weeks later, Lawyer A discovered that Johnny had retained another attorney — Lawyer B — to begin an eviction lawsuit!
“I just felt blindsided, trying to fairly and ethically do the right thing for both Johnny and the tenant, truly investing my personality and reputation in an effort to solve the problem. Then, to be treated in such a devious and clearly dishonest way just made me sick,” he told us.
In my book, Lawyer A is the kind of attorney every client should have, concerned about fairness, honesty and ethics.
Ron Jones agrees, and feels strongly that this is no way to treat your lawyer.
“Johnny’s behavior was insulting and likely created a situation where ‘A’s’ reputation has been harmed, as the tenant may think everything was planned all along. Clients expect and need their attorneys to be honest and tell them the truth; lawyers also have the same need from their clients. You can’t help a client who keeps the truth from you,” Jones stressed.
The Hanford attorney concluded his remarks with a warning to other “Johnnys” of the world who play “hide the ball” with their own attorney.
“Today, it is common for retainer agreements — which clients and lawyers both sign — to contain language which allows a lawyer to withdraw from a case if the client isn’t being honest with the attorney.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.