A group of new immigrants and former roommates has filed a lawsuit against a Tel Aviv landlord for failing to return their security deposit after they vacated an apartment that the man apparently did not have the right to rent to them in the first place.

Carmel Tanaka from Canada, Yaffa Serur from Mexico, Alessandra Acherman from Brazil and a fourth woman who asked for anonymity to protect her privacy filed the suit in small claims court last month against Shahar Hazan for breach of contract. They are seeking NIS 25,000 in damages. (Haaretz waited to publicize details of this case until Hazan was served. )

The women, who lived together in a four-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment near Rabin Square, became suspicious about the validity of their rental contract after Serur, 27, went to the Tel Aviv municipality last July to file the contract and begin paying the arnona (municipal property tax). She said the municipality gave her a contract which identified Hazan as the current renter of the apartment, which meant that he was subletting the apartment to the roommates for an additional NIS 2,500 per month, relative to the original contract. Hazan's rental contract, which Tanaka shared with Haaretz and which includes Hazan's signature, expressly forbade subletting.

An independent review by Haaretz of the apartment's land registration document, which is available online from the Land Registry Office, confirmed that Hazan does not hold the rights to the apartment and that the registered owner is named Itzhak Westman.

Confronting their landlord

Serur, who immigrated to Israel from Mexico and is working as a medical doctor, said she called Hazan soon after moving into the apartment and asked about the ownership discrepancy. "He said that he is the owner but he put the apartment in somebody else's name because he has too many apartments," she said. "He told me that he was going to change it. Every time I called him he said, 'I'm going to do it this week.'"

After two months, Serur said, "I realized that he wasn't going to do it so I said, 'Listen, if you're not going to change it then you're going to have to pay the arnona.' I was not going to pay something like 700 shekels instead of 70 shekels." New immigrants are entitled to a substantial discount on property taxes.

According to Serur, Hazan picked up the arnona bills every once in a while and told her he would pay until he changed the name on the contract, which he never did. "I was going to be responsible but he didn't let me," Serur said.

The roommates told Haaretz that they had several arguments with Hazan about the ownership and maintenance of the apartment and that eventually he ignored their phone calls. They said they were tired of fighting and decided to leave before their contract was up in June. The contract, which was reviewed by Haaretz, permitted them to do so, although it did not specify how much advance notice was required.

The women said they informed Hazan over the phone of their plans to leave a month early and that he agreed to release them from the contract, even though it required them to give written notice. When they met to do a walk-through of the empty apartment at the end of May, the women said Hazan claimed they did not properly notify him that they were leaving and that he did not have enough time to find new tenants. The women had already canceled their rent checks for June, so Hazan withheld their security deposit of three months rent (NIS 22,500 ), the women said.

Easily manipulated

In an interview, Tanaka, who emigrated from Canada last year, bemoaned the fact she and her former roommates were so easily manipulated. "What people like him count on is the fact that they're getting vulnerable girls who don't have families here, who don't know the language very well, who don't know what their legal rights are," Tanaka said.

She began soliciting legal advice in March and eventually convinced her former roommates to file the lawsuit.

Hazan has not yet submitted a statement of defense. Reached by phone on Wednesday night, Hazan said he was justified in keeping the deposit because the women never reimbursed him for paying the apartment's arnona - despite his failure to change the owner's name on the contract - or for the use of the furniture he was storing in the apartment. The women said that he initially asked them to pay NIS 500 for the furniture and then later demanded NIS 500 per month, so they refused to pay outright.

"I wanted to help them as much as I could, but if they are behaving this way and are greedy and want to take everything, I will come [to the court] with my truth," Hazan said. He avoided questions about his relationship to Westman, the person listed on the apartment's land registration extract. "People don't always need to understand me, and I don't always need to understand other people," he said. (The women said he told them Westman was his personal lawyer. )

When asked if he told the women he was the property owner, Hazan said, "What does it matter what I said or what they said?"

He refused to say whether he agreed to pay the arnona until he got around to changing the name on the contract.

'Let them sue him'

Westman, in a brief phone interview yesterday, said: "I'm not involved in it. If they sue him, let them sue him. I gave all the particulars to the lawyers."

Amit Straichman, an attorney who helped the women prepare their lawsuit for free, told Haaretz that he spoke with Westman at the end of August and that he sounded surprised to hear that Hazan was subletting the apartment.

"Westman said he owns a lot of properties in Tel Aviv and had no idea what I was talking about," Straichman said.

For Tanaka, the saga has left her fed up with the tribulations of living in Israel. "When I would tell my story to other people, especially other [immigrants] who had made aliyah earlier, they kept saying, 'This is your initiation into Israeli culture, everyone gets hit once.' I think this attitude needs to change. The cycle needs to be broken."