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Taking grievances to court benefits students

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 09, 2011 7:10 AM

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One of the largest property-management companies in Iowa City is under legal attack.

You may know it as Apartments Downtown Iowa City or its separate management office, Apartments Near Campus. In past years it has been Associated University Realty Inc., AUR Downtown Apartments, DTA Iowa City Inc., and, most recently, Apartments Downtown Inc. as of September 2003.

Whichever name you prefer, it has produced a lot of angry tenants.

One such tenant, Michael Conroy, filed a lawsuit against the company on Dec. 22, 2010. Conroy claims Apartments Downtown knowingly takes advantages of students who are unaware of their rights and the hidden agreements in their contracts. (One DI Editorial Board member is part of the lawsuit and did not participate in the discussion or writing of this editorial.)

“Basically, it’s a big bully,” Conroy’s attorney, Christopher Warnock, told the Editorial Board.

It is important for students who feel victimized by the company to follow in Conroy’s footsteps and join the burgeoning class-action lawsuit, regardless of how tough the battle may appear. Students are frequently discouraged from pursuing legal action because of unfamiliarity with the system, but taking disputes to the courts empowers citizens to defend their property and rights.

Warnock and fellow attorney Christine Boyer have been working on Conroy’s case, petitioning to make it a class-action lawsuit, something Warnock strongly recommends when many people are affected by the same thing.

In this case, Apartments Downtown has allegedly violated several sections of the Iowa Code by creating leases that abrogate tenants’ rights. The company allegedly withholds tenants’ security deposits, holds them responsible for damages regardless of cause, and charges hidden cleaning fees, among other complaints.

“People are just getting ripped off blatantly,” Warnock said. “The more we investigate, the worse stuff I find out.”

Regardless of the veracity of the lawsuit, petitioning for the class-action case gives students a chance to really make a change — even if, as Warnock says, class-action lawsuits are uncommon in Johnson County.

While it may be an unusual way to go in landlord/tenant situations, housing lawsuits are by no means rare. Greg Bal, the supervising attorney at University of Iowa Student Legal Services, said he has seen 268 students from July through September of this past year. Ninety-two of those cases involved landlord/tenant issues.

“This problem has been recognized for a long time,” he said.

Furthermore, Bal thinks the class action lawsuit is the right way to go, because he believes it will make it cheaper for the students in the long run. He said that a lot of students think there is nothing they can do in situations such as these and stresses that Student Legal Services is there to assist students in finding their legal sea legs.

“We can help them learn about their rights,” Bal told the Editorial Board.

Warnock couldn’t agree more. He believes that such lawsuits haven’t come about sooner because students believe that there is nothing they can do.

“When it comes down to it, they feel like they’re alone,” Warnock said. “We don’t want to put [landlords] out of business, but we want them to follow the law. That’s it.”

While he is unsure how long this case could take, he believes he has a good case legally. Apartments Downtown has never been challenged on such a broad scale, he said.

The plaintiffs’ claims have yet to be legally corroborated, and the fate of the case is amorphous, but students who participate in a lawsuit against a perceived abusive entity gain far more than a legitimate channel to air their grievances: They get experience with the legal system, which, like it or not, is how American business is held accountable. This case is a commendable instance of students using legal services to defend themselves against alleged injustice, and it should serve as an inspiration for others struggling with exploitation.


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