In the midst of a lengthy and complex legal battle over the eviction of two San Francisco residents, Superior Court Judge James J. McBride has fined Jonathan Bornstein of Bornstein and Bornstein — a law firm which specializes in tenant-landlord cases, and made local headlines for running an “eviction bootcamp” — $12,069, personally, due to the attorney’s conduct as he represented the landlord in the case.
The case itself, which is set to go to trial this week, is a rollicking affair that’s based in a dispute between neighbors living in the same, two-unit building on Seal Rock Drive: Upstairs tenants Ariel Bentolila and Abenet Tekie — the defendants in the eviction lawsuit, represented by attorneys Marc Branco and Curtis Briggs — and downstairs tenants, Jeffrey McMahon and Lisa Hagerty, who are not party to the civil action (but are involved as witnesses in the trial), according to court documents.
The squabbling allegedly began shortly after Bentolila and Tekie moved into the building in 2010, and has involved a flurry of accusations, SFPD responses to apparent noise complaints, and Department of Public Health inspections. At one point, the landlord’s real estate agent even sought to engage a professional mediator to diffuse tensions between the neighbors, which McMahon and Hagerty, the downstairs tenants, never responded to. After numerous complaints by McMahon and Hagerty over the alleged violations — they even created a Gmail account specifically to lodge complaints — the landlord, Helena Huoh, elected to attempt to evict the tenants, Bentolila and Tekie, claiming they violated the terms of their lease.
Specifically, the landlord is alleging tenants and defendants Bentolila and Tekie created a health hazard by installing bird feeders in the building’s shared backyard, causing the premises to be “overrun with rats, mice and attracted feral cats.” Also, the landlord is claiming that Bentolila and Tekie engaged in other disruptive behavior including harassment, mail theft, peering into the bedroom of McMahon and Hagerty’s child, noise issues, and a slew of other accusations — totaling 19, according to court documents.
The tenants facing eviction asked the judge to dismiss 11 of the claims because the landlord “does not possess and cannot obtain the evidence to support her prima facie case,” pointing to the alleged window-peering, mail theft, and harassment among other allegations. The Appeal was unable to locate evidence of the alleged behavior in court documents and exhibits, other than the alleged health hazards, which were corrected in December, according to San Francisco Public Health Department documents. The landlord’s attorney, Bornstein, declined to comment in detail about evidence related to the allegations.
Bornstein was fined the $12,069 penalty after the tenants’ attorneys filed what are called “terminating sanctions,” a legal mechanism lawyers can use to have a case dismissed if either side engages in “deliberately in deceptive practices that undermine the integrity of judicial proceedings.” It’s a drastic measure, if granted, and indicates gross professional misconduct.
According to documents filed by the tenants’ attorneys, they alleged that Bornstein instructed his client to ignore court orders, arrive late for depositions, refused to produced documents relevant to the case, and other improper activities — including similar behavior in the past.
While the judge didn’t grant the tenants’ request for terminating sanctions, ultimately deciding such a penalty wasn’t warranted, Judge McBride did sharply reprimand Bornstein in addition to the $12,069 penalty.
“Mr. Bornstein’s conduct is execrable,” McBride wrote, “He [Bornstein] is rude, condescending, and asserts completely unwarranted objections. His intent is clearly to waste time, obstruct legitimate discovery, and provoke his opponent. Such conduct is intolerable.” The judge also ordered Bornstein to pay the tenants’ lawyers $2,500 because of disobedience of a court order and abuse of the discovery process during a December deposition, according to court documents.
When contacted by The Appeal Bornstein was dismissive of the Judge’s sanctions — he says he plans to challenge it at the “proper time” — and was eager to make a clear distinction between that and the facts of the case. The judge’s penalty had nothing to do with withholding evidence or documents, Bornstein said, “We’ve been trying to get to trial since October, and there are no disputed facts from our point of view.” Jury selection in the case is scheduled to begin today, with opening arguments expected on Thursday.
Counsel representing the tenants facing eviction applauded Judge McBride’s decision and linked such behavior to the hostile rental market in San Francisco. “Over my years of practice I have never seen such behavior on the part of an attorney — in particular an attorney of Mr. Bornstein’s caliber,” the tenant’s counsel Marc Branco said in a written statement, “There is no doubt that the tactics used against my clients are a reflection of San Francisco’s current real estate landscape, and the questionable lengths some attorneys are willing to go to achieve their end.”
In spite of both party’s posturing, and the tenants’ acerbic relationship, evictions of any kind — fault or no-fault — are a controversial topic in San Francisco at the moment. “San Francisco is becoming a battle ground for real estate and renters are being victimized by baseless claims in many cases,” one of the tenants’ attorneys, Briggs said in an email message to The Appeal.
“It is not uncommon for a landlord to gain a half a million dollars in equity by evicting a rent controlled tenant. The housing court is packed day in and day out with landlords trying to evict tenants.”
What makes this eviction case stand out is that, unlike the many Ellis evictions San Francisco has seen in recent months, in this case the landlord is claiming to have lawful cause to evict the defendants — a circumstance less talked about as of late. And, unlike many poorer or senior residents, the defendants have been able to afford to retain private counsel through a near-six month long legal battle, a battle that has surely (based on the sheer number of depositions and documents filed on the tenants behalf) cost tens of thousands of dollars. The landlord, similarly, has also likely shelled out tens of thousands in attorneys fees. The only clear winners in this case may turn out to be the lawyers.