A county judge has thrown a San Francisco law firm off a court battle over a Richmond District eviction lawsuit originally filed more than a year and a half ago.
The firm, The Law Offices of Bornstein and Bornstein, which represents the landlord attempting to evict the tenants, also effectively run a property management company called Bay Property Group. In 2014 the property management company took over the building on Seal Rock Drive, and in doing so had contact with the tenants through their employees, in violation of the State Bar’s professional conduct guidelines, the Judge Ernest Holdsmith wrote.
“A lawyer can’t contact the tenants directly, and he can’t have his employees or anyone else on his behalf contact them indirectly,” said attorney Jonathan Arons. Arons is a member of the Association of Discipline Defense Counsel, an organization that represents lawyers facing disciplinary action from the state bar association.
Reached by telephone Wednesday afternoon, Jonathan Bornstein, who used to represent the landlord Helena Huoh, declined to comment on the matter. Although Jonathan Bornstein himself is not employed by Bay Property Group, Daniel Bornstein, also a partner at the law firm, is one of the founders. The property management company also shares its San Francisco office with Bornstein and Bornstein.
But, despite the fact that the indirect contact with the other side in a lawsuit is prohibited, Bornstein and Bornstein did so anyway, and several employees of Bay Property Group went to survey to unit where the tenants Ariel Bentolila and Abenet Tekie under the guise of inspections — including surreptitiously video taping the tenants while inspecting the unit.
“We were stunned when we discovered that opposing counsel’s property management company took over management of our clients’ tenancy while we were in the midst of litigation,” the tenants attorney Marc Branco wrote in a statement to The Appeal. “Therefore, we were compelled to motion the Court for disqualification to ensure that our clients received a fair trial, and that any unfair advantaged gained by opposing counsels’ role in managing our clients’ tenancy would be purged from these proceedings.”
The Appeal first reported on the lawsuit when eviction proceedings began. The court battle got started after the downstairs neighbors in a two unit building located on Seal Rock Drive began to squabble with the upstairs tenants Ariel Bentolila and Abenet Tekie (the defendants in the lawsuit). After numerous complaints from the downstairs tenants, Jeffrey McMahon and Lisa Hagerty, the landlord — Helena Huoh, who does not live in the building — elected to file an eviction lawsuit, or unlawful detainer against the upstairs tenants, the defendants.
Huoh hired notorious tenant-landlord attorneys Daniel and Jonathan Bornstein to represent her.
The initial eviction lawsuit included accusations (and justification for eviction) such as harassment, mail theft, causing health hazards, making too much noise and even spying into the downstairs unit. All of which upstairs tenants Bentolila and Tekie have vigorously denied throughout the court proceedings.
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.
In the midst of the legal fight a county magistrate — who has since retired — fined then lead attorney for the plaintiff, Daniel Borntstein, $12,069 for his behavior during the civil action. “Mr. Bornstein’s conduct is execrable,” judge James McBride wrote, “[Daniel 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.”
And after months of legal wrangling, just as the lawsuit was about to be tried in front of a jury, Huoh’s attorney, Daniel Bornstein, informed the court that his client no longer wished to proceed with the eviction, and used a legal mechanism to accuse the defendants of breaching their rental contract instead. The damages Huoh hoped to claim were under $25,000.
Jonathan Bornstein filed a second eviction lawsuit in 2014.
At publication time, Huoh’s new attorney, James Millar (who did not return telephone calls and email messages), has once again transformed the case into breach of contract litigation, instead of an eviction lawsuit. And the tenants have filed a counter-claim seeking, alleging a variety of damages and quality of life disruptions as a result of Huoh’s initial lawsuit, and Bornstein’s actions — which he, and Huoh have vigorously denied in court documents.
Both cases remain unresolved. And after tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees the eviction battle shows no signs of letting up.