Apartments Downtown plaintiffs to take charges to small claims court


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Sophie Borer knew she was not allowed to bring a pet to her apartment complex on South Johnson Street, but she didn't expect a short visit from her father and dog would lead to more than $1,000 in fines and a protracted legal battle with Clark Family Rental.

"She wasn't even in the apartment for more than five minutes, and we already got a fine," Borer said.

That was the first of a series of disputes between Clark and the Borer family. After months of unsuccessful legal maneuvering through a class-action case against Clark and its subsidiaries, the Borers and Lenora Caruso — another Clark client — have both filed small-claims cases against the rental group.

Their attorney, Chris Warnock, said he's advising some of his clients involved in the class-action case to file a case in small-claims court. He said individuals involved in small claims typically see a judge within 60 days of filling.

And Mark Borer, Sophie Borer's father, said he hopes taking the case to small-claims court will bring a speedier resolution to the ongoing case and help his daughter find closure on the issue.

"The class-action lawsuit could take up to two years to work through," he said, "In two years, my daughter might be out of college and out on her own. This will be a distant memory."

Warnock said recent budgetary reductions in the Iowa court system have contributed to the legal slowdown. The Iowa Judicial Branch reduced its budget by $16 million in 2009, leading to deep staff cuts in the court system.

"The class action is stuck in the mud." Warnock said. "The courts have had their funding cut pretty drastically; they keep doing criminal cases and are just sitting on the civil cases."

Warnock has also filed a complaint with the Attorney General's Office in hopes that it will investigate Clark for improper debt collection.

Warnock said landlords are allowed to demand compensation from their clients for damages, but not to profit off additional fines such as the $600 pet fee Clark levied against Sophie.

"Anybody they can get with a dog or a cat they nail; it's just another profit center for them," Warnock said. "It's almost like organized crime. They do all this illegal stuff, and it's not an aberration, it's set up that way."

Apartments Downtown—a rental group owned by Clark — did not return a request for comment on the status of the case or the legitimacy of Warnock's claims.

Warnock, who represents several other clients in cases against Clark, developed a website called the Iowa Tenants Project to provide aid to students battling Iowa City rental agencies. He added a small-claims section to the site last month with step-by-step instructions to help his clients file individual small-claims suits.

The small-claims process can be intimidating, Warnock said, to students without legal experience.

"When people call me, they hope Superman is going to swoop in and save them, and that doesn't really work," he said. "Essentially, people have to do this themselves, and that's what Apartments Downtown takes advantage of."

Borer said he won't pocket the returns from the suit if the court finds in his favor.

"I'm not doing this for any financial gain; neither is Chris. We're doing this because we feel what they're doing is wrong and illegal, and they need to stop it because kids are suffering," Borer said, "I told Chris he can donate the money to charity or use it to defend other students or whatever he wants."

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