Showdown: Judge satisfies both sides

"My lawyer," Wallace Gibson declared, "is going to have him for lunch." Gibson, who is a local property manager, was predicting that when she and former tenant Andrew Logan squared off in Charlottesville General District Court, Judge Robert Downer would declare her the victor. As it happened, however, both sides won some and lost some.

At issue was $600 Gibson withheld from Logan's security deposit last September when he and his wife moved out of the house they'd rented for a year. I wrote about the contretemps last month ["Front row," March 11, 2004], in which Gibson charged Logan $400 for wall damage, $100 for yard damage, and a 20 percent, or $100, service charge.

Logan represented himself and argued that Gibson was wrong to charge him for damages. He and his wife, he claimed, had not only had a lawn-care company cut and weed-eat the grass two days before they moved out, but had reseeded the lawn and mulched and weeded the flower beds themselves.

As for the alleged damage to the walls– which had been given an exotic faux finish, involving layers of different colors and, ultimately, a coat of clear gesso– Logan argued that since Gibson's "Resident Handbook" states that tenants are to "remove all nails, hook and tacks," she could hardly fault them for removing a number of hooks and nails– even though, as both sides admit, they were left by the previous tenants. Logan had filled the holes with spackle, but, due to the complicated nature of the paint job, hadn't repainted.

When it was her turn, Gibson– or, more precisely, her lawyer, Fred Wood– agreed that the yard had in fact been in fine condition at move-out; the damage she was charging them for had been done over the winter. A contractor she'd hired in January 2003 to fix a fence in the back yard had charged her $100 above his estimate because, when he arrived to do the work, he discovered he'd be working in a veritable doggy latrine.

This was the liveliest part of the case. The contractor, Paul Steel, testified graphically about his travails, thanks to Logan's four dogs, and I lost count of the terms used by the various parties to describe dog poop. One feature of the yard dispute that struck Judge Downer was that Gibson had never, until they met in court, informed Logan she had withheld the $100 not because of the yard's condition when he moved out, but because of something that had happened eight months earlier.

In the matter of the alleged damage to the walls, Gibson stated that she didn't always require tenants to remove hardware from walls, and expressly hadn't wanted those walls disturbed. She also claimed that two weeks before the move-out, she'd told Logan's wife that that all they needed to do was "massive cleaning." Under questioning from Downer, however, she acknowledged that she hadn't put in writing that they weren't to remove the hardware.

In the end, Downer ruled that the $100 dog-poop charge was reasonable, but concluded that Logan had been correct to remove nails and hooks from the walls. He went on to say, however, that Logan should have known that you can't use spackle to patch plaster, and awarded Gibson $75 for the repairs that would be required. He also awarded Gibson's $35 for her service fee (20 percent of $175), for a total of $210. Since Gibson had withheld $600, that meant she owed Logan the balance, or $390, along with $35 in court costs.

Gibson declared herself "very pleased" with the outcome, and Logan, remarking that he'd pursued the matter not for money but because of the principle of the thing, pronounced himself equally satisfied.

Northern Exposure epilogue

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a close encounter three UVA faculty members had with some salad dressing while dining at Northern Exposure ["Dressing debacle," April 15]. I'm now pleased to report that manager Zachary Groseclose sent a very gracious letter of apology to Ron Reeve, one of the diners, along with a certificate good for up to $50– and said that if the other two will return his call and given him their addresses, he'll do the same for them.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.