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Recent cases give lawyers hope: Judge finds in favor of Iowa City tenants
Sept 7, 2013
Iowa Press Citizen: Josh O'Leary

A string of recent small claims court victories by college students has given the lawyer leading the fight against Iowa City landlords optimism that his pending class-action cases will continue to gain traction in the courts.

A magistrate judge this week ruled in favor of a former Kirkwood Community College student who sued Apartments Downtown after the company fined her $600 for briefly bringing her family dog into her apartment.

Sixth judicial district judge Karen Egerton ruled that the pet provision in Apartment Downtown’s lease agreement was illegal, and awarded tenant Sophie Borer $840 for the pet penalty and late fees, plus $4,047 in damages.

Christopher Warnock of the Iowa City Tenants’ Project, one of two attorneys who represented Borer in the case, is pursuing class-action lawsuits against Apartments Downtown and the affiliate companies owned by the Clark family — the area’s largest off-campus student housing providers — as well as two other local landlords.

Warnock said his goal is to level the playing field in the Iowa City area between tenants and landlords, who have for years been accused by students of retaining security deposits for minor issues and leveling undue fees and fines.

Warnock said the victory in the Borer case is the latest in a series of wins for Iowa City tenants, and shows that the courts are beginning to recognize the illegality of parts of local landlords’ leases.

“It’s a very strong message from the judiciary this is not right, things have to change with landlords,” Warnock said. “And that’s all we’re interested in doing.”

In the Borer case, Egerton said that the $600 fine Apartments Downtown specified in its lease for having any animal on the premises for any amount of time was “outrageous, unreasonable, and unconscionably disproportionate to the offense.”

Borer, who lived in a Dodge Street apartment while attending Kirkwood last year, said her father only had the family’s small dog in her apartment for a minute or so when she received a call from management telling her it was against her lease.

Borer, who suspects management saw her enter the apartment with the pet, said the small dog had caused no damage and made no noise, so she was shocked when she later learned about the $600 fine.

Borer said her lawsuit was not about getting her money back but standing up against unfair practices by landlords.

“I definitely hope Apartments Downtown, the Clarks, open their eyes and see they can’t do this,” said Borer, who now lives in Sycamore, Ill. “And if they do keep doing it, people can go forward and say this is wrong, they’re taking advantage of me and I’m going to do something about it.”

Apartments Downtown general manager Joe Clark and attorney Joe Holland, who represents the company, did not return calls Friday seeking comment.

The case went to trial in September 2012, but Egerton only this week issued her 11-page judgment — an unusually long ruling, said Warnock, given that it was a small claims case.

In another ruling in May, Egerton found that Apartments Downtown wrongfully withheld deposit money from one of Warnock’s clients and had illegally charged a tenant for damage after an unknown third party had damaged the apartment.

Also in May, Magistrate Judge Lynn Rose ruled that provision in local landlord Tracy Barkalow’s lease fining tenants $150 for having an open window when the building’s heat was on, even when there was no damage, was excessive and illegal.

“You can see where the judges are going on these cases,” Warnock said. “In these small claims cases, when the judges actually look at the lease, everything we bring up, they’re basically like, ‘That’s illegal.’ ”

The nonprofit Iowa City Tenants’ Project is pursuing class-action certification in cases against Apartments Downtown, Barkalow and Houser Enterprises.

A district court judge had previously ruled to not certify the class-action lawsuit against Barkalow, but earlier this year, an appeals court ordered a trial court to certify a class action and review the legality of the Barkalow lease.

That also could revive the dormant class action case against Apartments Downtown, Warnock said, because the two companies use the same lease.

“This is David versus Goliath,” Warnock said. “No one’s stood up to them like this before.”

For further information go to the Iowa Tenants' Project Contact Page