Two tenants who took notorious landlord Anne Kihagi to court over their eviction from an apartment on Hill Street have been awarded more than $3.5 million by a jury.
Over the course of two and a half years, Dale Duncan and his wife Marta Mendoza pursued a civil suit against Kihagi. A nearly five-week jury trial concluded at the beginning of October, when the jury returned a verdict that the tenants had been wrongfully evicted and ordered Kihagi and her business to pay more than $1.17 million in damages.
San Francisco rent law allows for damages in such cases to be tripled, which a judge then did, resulting in the heaviest fines ever set for a case involving a single apartment unit.
“Justice is money, that’s it in our culture,” said Steven McDonald of Greenstein & McDonald, the tenants’ attorney. “We try to get our clients as much justice as we can.”
Duncan, Mendoza and their now-nine-year-old daughter were told to leave their apartment at 71 Hill Street so Kihagi’s sister could move in, but she never did. This type of misuse of the so-called owner-move-in eviction was found by a NBC Bay Area investigation last year to have been widely abused throughout the city.
At a press conference in front of City Hall on Friday, McDonald said taking the case all the way to a jury trial was key to ending up with the amount ultimately awarded.
“Nobody wants to serve on a jury, it’s a pain in the ass. But every jury I’ve ever had, they give 100 percent of their effort,” he said. “The jury clearly sent a message.”
Duncan said among the other tenants he knows who who allege they have been evicted or harassed by Kihagi, none have been able to stick with the process long enough to go to trial.
“At some point, everybody would just just get tired and take $30,000, just to [make it] go away,” Duncan said.
“A lot of people settle for peanuts and the landlord makes the money back,” McDonald said.
During the trial, jurors saw plenty of evidence about Kihagi’s alleged misconduct, Duncan said.
The tenants alleged in their complaint that Kihagi had neglected the unit, resulting in inadequately serviced fire extinguishers, electricity frequently being shut off because the utility bills had not been paid, and no access to laundry and mail facilities. Kihagi has been sued by the city for harassing tenants in order to get them to leave.
“It was the first time to have all of her laundry hung on a line in front of a jury … and they were stunned at what had gone on,” Duncan said.
Justice may be money, but the couple and their nine-year-old daughter can’t live on Hill Street anymore. They have managed to stay in the city, but the stress of it all took a toll.
“Going to trial was really hard for me,” Mendoza said. “I miss my home; that was my home. I can’t go back in time and recover all the pain and suffering.”
They hope, however, that the case will be — if not a threat to Kihagi, at least a reminder to other tenants that defending their rights is worthwhile.
“The one thing I learned is we have laws … it seems we really need to stick up for them,” said Duncan.
When a reporter asked Mendoza to make some remarks for Spanish-speaking audiences, she addressed them directly in Spanish.
“To the Latino community, which I think is one of the most affected by this kind of thing: speak up. You have rights, look for help, because it does exist,” she said.
An attorney for Kihagi did not return a request for comment on this story.