This new LawyersandSettlements.com column looks at a side of lawyers you don’t hear too much about—the side that gives back…pays it forward..and shares the love. We’ve found quite a number of attorneys who log non-billable hours helping others—simply because they believe it’s the right thing to do. Their stories are inspiring, and hey, who knew lawyers were so…good? If you’ve got a story to share about an attorney who’s doing the right thing, let us know—we’d love to let others know, too. Today, we talk with John Mittelman of Mittelman Law Firm…
An experienced and successful lawyer in Temecula, California, John Mittelman can demand up $450 an hour for his services, but he and a colleague, April Blackwood, spend dozens and dozens of pro bono hours representing tenants who live in some of southern California’s nastiest, slummiest apartment buildings.
“These apartments are infested with mold and mice, the doors don’t lock, there are stoves that don’t work, no hot water, just fill in the blank,” says Mittelman. “I have clients who put toilet paper in their ears and noses at night to keep the cockroaches from crawling in. There are mice and other vermin nibbling on their children’s fingertips while they sleep.”
“These are people that don’t have money for first and last [month's rent] and security deposit to move out of these places,” says Mittelman. “And if they did, they would most likely find themselves in another building owned by this same company.”
PAMA management is one of the largest apartment owners in the Los Angeles and San Bernardino area. The company is owned by Swaranjit “Mike” Nijjar, who Mittelman says, lives like a “slumlord millionaire”, throwing lavish parties in his palatial home while his tenants live in squalor.
“PAMA is raking in up to $850 a month from hundreds of tenants,” says Mittelman. “And PAMA never really paid for these buildings in the first place, because of all the tax breaks and it really isn’t interested in maintaining them.”
Sometimes other PAMA tenants hear that a lawyer recently helped out a tenant and will ask Mittelman to help.
“We can go into court after they have moved, or even while they are still there and sue the landlord for emotional distress, pain and suffering that goes along with living in a cockroach infested, mold infested place with no heat,” says Mittelman.
“Sometimes we go to court and get nice judgments for these people and they can walk away with a sizeable amount money–and maybe then we would take an attorney fee.“ But the more likely situation is what Mittelman explains next.
Some tenants get so frustrated by the landlord’s slow-to-act maintenance service and a system that either doesn’t have time or money these days to force landlords to maintain buildings, they just start withholding rent without consulting legal advice.
The landlords can then issue a notice to pay in three days—or get out.
“These are people who just came to the end of their rope,” says Mittelman. By the time they get legal advice, the best that can be done is to negotiate a “walk away” as it is called.
“We don’t see any money for that,” says Mittelman. “And we don’t expect it. These people certainly don’t have enough money to pay us, so that’s the pro bono end. We will get 45 days grace and sometimes a waiver of the rent that is due—so these people can move on.”
Unfortunately, things often just get worse them. “Now they have a judgment against them,” says Mittelman. “They often don’t have good credit in the first place and any potential landlord is going to look at those judgments and want more rent because they are considered a risky tenant or they are not going to rent to them at all.”
PAMA Management and its apartment buildings have been in the news a lot in California. The company says that tenants often don’t look after the property—and that’s why there are problems.
That is not how John Mittelman sees it.
John Mittelman is in solo practice at the Mittelman Law Firm. He has handled thousands of medical malpractice, personal injury and landlord/tenant cases over the last two decades. He also does class action and employment law. He handles every case personally and represents his clients zealously.