How a renter's complaint and an attorney's gut feeling led to $500,000 settlement

The renter was looking for help. His former landlord had sued him for nearly $10,000, contending that he'd significantly damaged his unit before leaving even though he insisted he hadn't.

Hong Park, a Maryland Legal Aid staff attorney who took the case in 2010, asked the landlord for documentation and thought the invoices provided "looked a little bit off." He called the contractors who had supposedly issued them for fixing up the unit. Were the invoices legit?

"All forged," Park said.

That, the nonprofit legal help bureau says, was the spark that prompted this week's settlement between the owner of the Ager Road Station Apartments in Hyattsville and the Maryland Attorney General's office -- $500,000 in restitution for former tenants plus some would-be tenants allegedly hit with extremely high application fees.

A spokesman for the attorney general declined to confirm Maryland Legal Aid's role, saying the office never talks about who refers cases its way -- even when the referer wouldn't mind a public pat on the back. But the docket for the Prince George's County court case Park handled has a notation that the attorney general requested copies of it last May.

Apartment owner Ager Road Station LLP did not respond to messages seeking comment. Though the company agreed to the settlement, it denied violating any laws, the attorney general's office said.

Park said he and co-counsel Justin Zelikovitz found evidence of forged documents in other Ager Road Station suits and contacted prosecutors, who recommended bringing in the attorney general. Park said he's seen a lot of collections cases, but never anything like this.

The one that got the two attorneys digging involved a renter who owned up to "fairly minor" damage but not nearly as much as the landlord was claiming in court, Park said. The suit asked for $6,956 plus $2,612 in attorney fees. 

None of the invoices supplied by the landlord had company logos, he said. But what really prompted Park to check with the contractors is that one of the invoice dates matched up with the point that collections began, not when his client left the unit.

"We filed a motion for sanctions and we ended up settling that case," he said.

Apartment-damage claims can be difficult for renters to defend themselves against -- failing a  holy-cow documentation problem -- because many don't document the condition of their apartment when they move in and out.

Park's recommendation: Do the move-in inspection, fill out the form to note what's already not in good shape and keep a copy of it. Then participate in the move-out inspection. And take pictures at both points.

"One thing I see routinely is landlords claiming the carpet needed to be replaced, even though by the time the client moved in, the carpet needed to be replaced anyway," Park said.

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