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Proposals Studied to Stop Abusers

August 08, 1993|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There have been several attempts to change California's landlord-tenant laws to stop unscrupulous renters from taking advantage of laws designed to protect honest tenants with valid gripes.

Most notable is a proposal similar to a law in Florida under which renters battling a landlord must first post the month's rent with the court clerk before proceeding with a suit. The idea is to discourage those tenants intent on not paying rent to bilk the landlord and pocket the money.

"We firmly believe scam artists and abusers won't post a nickel and possession (of the property) should be turned over immediately," said Trevor A. Grimm, general counsel for the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA).

But critics claim such proposals would be bad for both sides.

Kenneth H. Carlson, a Glendale attorney who represents both landlords and tenants, said that requiring the tenant to post a month's rent before proceeding against a landlord "doesn't address the problem and creates more court appearances and a greater backlog by adding another level of judiciary."

Moreover, he said, it's unfair to the honest tenant, who may have been forced to spend the month's rent on necessary repairs. An unscrupulous landlord could then file for an eviction and if the tenant has no more money, he or she couldn't afford to go to court.

"Essentially, they'd have to buy their way into court," Carlson said.

The landlord would be hurt, he said, in that a dishonest tenant could present falsified receipts indicating the rent money was spent on fixing alleged problems in the apartment, forcing the landlord to take it up in court.

"Now we'd have one more level of bureaucracy that would push back the available trial dates," he said.

Instead, Carlson said one way to combat the problem is by putting the brakes on the petition mills, which most agree generate the largest number of fraudulent non-payments of rent. One step in that direction, he said, is extending the 30-day public seal on eviction records to 60 days. By then, most unchallenged evictions would be finished.

Another possibility, which is more difficult to implement, is to change federal bankruptcy laws.

"We have told many of our (U.S.) representatives what the problem is and suggested the best solution would be a change in the automatic stay," said Federal Bankruptcy Judge Geraldine Mund.

The automatic stay was adopted by Congress in 1979 in an attempt to give debtors a chance to assess their financial situation and to give the courts an opportunity to approve a fair and equitable distribution of assets.

"But in the case of the month-to-month tenancy, it's been abused," Mund said.

And while this potential solution seems to make sense to those involved, it will be difficult to achieve, because federal law would have to be changed for a problem largely considered exclusive to Los Angeles and a few other large cities.

"The problem we face in this city isn't really known in the cities where it's starting to happen," Mund said. "It's not a problem in rural areas and towns and in general it's a non-issue for a large percentage of Congress."

Meanwhile, she said, the bankruptcy court caseload has at least doubled in recent years, prompting Congress to authorize two new judgeships at taxpayers expense.

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