Small Claims, Big Headaches

On cases involving a landlady who tried to get a tenant to pay her costs and dog-lovers who weren't their landlord's pet residents.

It isn't rare for landlords to try to roll over costs onto tenants - whether they are payments that have to be made to the municipality, the building committee (va'ad bayit ) or the utilities. The tenant may even find himself up to his neck in a dispute in which he has no part whatsoever.

A case of a landlady trying to roll over her costs onto her tenant was discussed last month at the Jerusalem Small Claims Court.

The plaintiff in that case, Lihi, had rented an apartment from Hava. Lihi claims that throughout the time she lived there, she paid NIS 2,100 to the building committee for building maintenance, which as the tenant - not the property owner - she should not have had to shoulder.

Hava did not deny that the building committee had carried out maintenance work, but claimed it had been financed by a surplus of funds that the committee had accrued previously. All the money the tenant Lihi paid to the committee had been used to cover current expenses, the landlady claimed.

Judge Malka Aviv demanded documents from the building committee's records. These records showed that the committee had a surplus of NIS 5,500. They also showed that it had spent NIS 25,000 on the building's water and sewage system, NIS 4,400 on pruning trees and NIS 5,900 on legal costs. In short, its noncurrent expenses had totaled NIS 35,300.

Hava had it wrong, the judge ruled: The building committee had collected an extra NIS 29,800 from the apartments to finance these costs. As the building had 15 apartments, that worked out to NIS 1,986 each.

The landlady could have found out these facts for herself by talking to the representatives of the building committee, the judge pointed out. She would have quickly discovered that the committee kitty didn't have the sums needed in surplus to cover the all the work.

Hava was ordered to repay the money to her tenant, Lihi, plus interest and linkage - and to cover NIS 750 in court costs.

A small dog story

A lot of the stories that reach the courts are less clear-cut. Like that of Rashomon, they are often "he said, she said" affairs; perception is subjective and the different accounts may be equally plausible. It is sometimes hard to know where the truth lies. In cases like this, the courts nudge the parties to compromise, hoping to make everything go away.

A case like this recently reached the Herzliya Small Claims Court, where Judge Hanna Klugman found herself presiding over a tenant named Lionor and her son, who had rented a one-room apartment in the backyard of a man named David.

The problem lay with the third occupant of the backyard room: Lionor and her son brought home a German shepherd puppy, who had the run of the yard. The latch keeping the gate to the yard was broken, though. Time and again Lionor asked the landlord David to fix the latch, but he didn't and the dog, she claims, was stolen.

Grief-stricken, Lionor and her son bought another dog - a Pinscher, they said. But the new pet barked a lot. The landlord became annoyed to the point where he made threats, claimed Lionor: Either they moved out or he'd make sure the dog disappeared.

They did move out, and demanded that David give back a check (which they had given in advance, post-dated ) covering the period that they were now no longer going to be living there. Lionor also sued for damages caused by having to leave the premises before their contract ran out.

The landlord counter-sued for damage the tenants had done to the door, mattress and rug in the room they'd rented. He also claimed their story was a lie, and added that no mention of dogs had been made when they rented the apartment.

"She claimed the dog disappeared. I don't know if it disappeared, or disappeared because it was sold," David told the court. "She brought another dog and the barking was so bad it couldn't go on. I felt they were trying to create a dog pound. I tried to talk nicely with them, but it didn't work out."

The court urged the parties to settle their differences. Neither would admit to any wrongdoing, so the court proposed that David would return Lionor's check. Both sides also agreed to withdraw their claims for damages.