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Tenants file lawsuit on landlord

/ Source: Santa Maria Times

A lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 50 residents of a North Broadway motel and RV park against the property owner alleges squalor conditions and a long list of serious health and safety violations.

Filed on Wednesday in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, the civil lawsuit seeks damages of more than $1 million against landlord Dario Pini, owner of adjacent properties at 1311 and 1335 N. Broadway.

California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. and the law office of Santa Maria attorney Adrian Andrade are representing former and current renters, who are seeking $340,000 for unsafe dwellings and health-and-safety code violations; $690,000 for negligence, nuisance and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress; and $34,000 for other health and safety code violations.

They also are seeking required restitution of money and property and punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial.

Attempts to reach Pini were unsuccessful.

The listed office phone number for Dario Pini Investments in Santa Barbara is no longer in service or has been disconnected.

CRLA attorney Jeannie Barrett described the conditions of the properties as "Third World."

Citing "unsafe structural, electric, plumbing and mechanical modifications," the city of Santa Maria declared the motel, 1311 N. Broadway, substandard on Feb. 16, and ordered tenants to leave the units.

The lawsuit lists among the complaints failed motel repairs to leaky roofs and ceilings, broken windows, broken and leaky sinks and toilets, inoperable heating units, and gas leaks from appliances and burners.

At the Santa Maria RV Park, 1335 N. Broadway, the lawsuit alleges lack of required toilets and showers; unpermitted gas, water, electric and sewer connections; inadequate park lighting, and failure to keep the park clean, among other code violations.

Besides an order to fix code violations at the properties, the city required Pini to pay residents relocation benefits. However, Barrett said he didn't do that

Instead, Pini moved residents into others properties he owns in Santa Maria - either just as bad or worse - or into the Western Motel next door, a property he doesn't own, according to Barrett.

After a November 2008 city Building Department inspection, notices were posted on illegally converted structures at the RV park, which required tenants to leave immediately.

They are now vacant.

Standing in the parking lot of the shuttered 21-unit motel, Andrade said tenants had been paying their rent while suffering in deplorable circumstances. Although he wouldn't describe Pini's motivation as greed, Andrade said it's not far off.

"In my opinion, it's something akin to that," he said.

Residents of both properties came to CRLA when the notices were issued, unsure about what was happening and asking, "What are we going to do now?," Barrett said.

Sara Quintana, an eight-year resident of the RV park, said she remembers well that dark, rainy Monday afternoon in February.

Quintana, who lives with her father in a trailer they own, recalled crying children and confused families being booted from their dwellings by police.

Although they were given a 24-day notice to leave the property last year, and told to look for another place to live, the Quintana's haven't moved from the RV park.

They pay $450 a month for their space, she said..

Some of the trailers are owned by Pini and rented out, according to the lawsuit.

If she could talk to Pini, Quintana said she would tell him to treat tenants more like people, "not pennies."

"Maybe he could have more money by being more humane," she said.

Quintana said some people have been afraid to speak up about the conditions because of the legal status in the U.S.

Pini is no stranger to administrative and legal action for code violations on his many properties.

He has had prior run-ins with the city of Santa Barbara and in Ventura County. He has even served jail time because of the violations, Barrett said.

In July 2007, the Santa Maria Code Compliance Board fined Pini after a blocked pipe in front of a unit at the Vineyard Apartments on East Jones Street spilled sewage onto the sidewalk, into the gutter and down Jones Street.

The fine, retroactive back to the April incident, was about $3,000.

More recently, Santa Maria took Pini to criminal court in 2008 for the installation of plumbing lines without a permit and a faulty carport firewall at 1415 N. Miller St.

Pini pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor with a $355 fine and two years probation. In exchange, the city agreed the cases on North Broadway would be handled with administrative penalties.

Bob Marshall, Santa Maria's building official, had no comment on the lawsuit.

August 14, 2009