Lawyer’s Forte : Eviction--It’s His Key to Success
At 8 a.m. a man in a tweed coat took a stand, briefcase at his feet, in a long corridor of the Los Angeles County Courthouse.
“Anyone here for Katz & Block?” he shouted into a milling crowd. “Anyone here for Katz & Block?”
After a minute or so someone drifted his way. He smiled and shook the man’s hand.
“Hi,” he said to a client who until then had known him only by phone.
He spoke with the man briefly, going over the answers he might have to give on the witness stand later in the day. Just before stepping away, he handed the man a bill for $150.
Another case, another sale for Michael Katz, a 34-year-old lawyer who seeks to make his fortune by mass marketing a type of lawsuit that is widely regarded, in one lawyer’s words, as “the garbage pail of the law.”
Katz is the co-founder of the law firm of Katz & Block. It does one kind of case. It evicts people.
“We don’t do two or three or five a month,” Katz said recently in an interview. “We do 300 or more a month.” He calls his law firm the McDonald’s of evictions.
Katz’s workload is part of the latest strategic shift in the tumultuous struggles of landlords and tenants.
After a decade in which tenants appeared to be gaining the upper hand through sophisticated use of the courts to stall the eviction process, landlords today are evicting more people than ever, and with increasing efficiency.
Almost 40,000 evictions a year are filed in the downtown branch of Los Angeles Municipal Court. Though many a tenant still drags out an eviction for as long as six months, paying no rent along the way, most cases are settled quietly and far more quickly.
Leaders in Field
The secret is in the processing--a kind of fast-food practice of law. Others practice it too, but Katz & Block are the leaders. They handle twice as many cases as any other law firm, perhaps 10% of all the evictions in Los Angeles.
“We’ve got it down so we offer a good product, a good service, a lot of quality at a fairly inexpensive price,” Katz said. “Our reputation is based on speed.”
A rough estimate of the output of his seven years in the business would be 20,000 evictions. Katz hesitates to pin the number down.
If he carries any cumulative guilt for throwing all those people out of their homes, Katz conceals it behind a smile and breezy description of those he has evicted.
“Some of them think they have rights they don’t have,” he said. “Some of them have lost their jobs. Some of them are evicted because the landlord wants to move in. Some of them we’ve evicted because they’re just flakes. You name the reason, I’m sure we’ve evicted the tenants.”
Heartless? Maybe. But this is not a man in a leather jacket who slinks around the courthouse.
Katz is a clean-cut, tweedy type. He lives in the upper-middle-class haven of Manhattan Beach and commutes to an office in a mid-Wilshire high rise. His hobby is investing in apartment buildings.
“We all feel sorry for the elderly who may not be able to afford the rent,” Katz said. “We also feel sorry for the person who has three kids and their husband left them and he was the breadwinner and they have no money. But I don’t think it’s up to the landlord where they live to support these people. That’s not fair.”
Because of that viewpoint, Katz is enthusiastically cultivated by other landlords. This year he was elected president of the San Fernando Valley Apartment Owners Assn.
Among his legal colleagues there are no such honors. Some lawyers look down on eviction cases. Some take them just because they tend to draw in more lucrative and interesting work.
No one takes them on for the intellectual challenge. Katz & Block may be the only law firm in Los Angeles that maintains no law library. It doesn’t need one.
“You don’t have to study the landlord-tenant law for years,” Katz said. “You can learn the knowledge in the books in a matter of a couple of weeks.”
The critical questions in the preponderance of his cases, Katz said, are whether the tenant can and will pay the rent and whether the landlord served notice in the proper manner.
“We’re talking about a trial that’s going to be done in 15 to 20 minutes. We’re talking about a real simple issue.”
Katz accepts the low status of his trade graciously.
“This is what I want to do,” he said. “I don’t want to practice any other kind of law.”
Katz and his partner, Dennis Block, don’t pretend to be the inventors of the quick-order eviction. They merely perfected the practice as it evolved naturally from rapid and conflicting pressures that the last decade has wrought on the rental housing market.
Among them, rapid inflation of rents and the economic recession touched off an explosion of defaults on rent. Rent control cut into landlords’ profits and hardened their attitudes toward slow-paying tenants.
The result was a steady rise in eviction filings, which climbed to 31,234 in 1982, 33,662 in 1983 and 36,073 last year.
The Los Angeles Municipal Court responded to the overload by designating a single courtroom for landlord-tenant cases. Since the landlord-tenant court opened in 1977, its work has multiplied from a few cases a day to as many as 100.
“When I first started doing these cases, there was one judge,” said Gary Blasi, a Los Angeles Legal Aid attorney who helped set up the Eviction Defense Center. “I remember going in for trials and there would be 12 cases on calendar. . . . Now you go down there and it’s like cattle call.”
“It’s very busy and, prognosticating the future, it would appear it is going to be increasing,” said Presiding Judge Malcolm H. Mackey. “I don’t know if it’s the wave of the future, but it certainly is the sign of the times.”
In that climate, the existence of Katz’s practice of law is unsettling to lawyers such as Blasi, whose agency can afford to represent only 10% of the eviction clients who come through its doors for help. Because most of them are being evicted for non-payment of rent, they can’t hire attorneys. So they go into court unrepresented.
Blasi believes many of them get pushed around, agreeing to monetary judgments that they might have avoided by going to trial.
“You basically have a system of hallway justice where lawyers representing landlords strike deals with clients who aren’t being represented,” Blasi said. “I’ve had clients who would have been better off going to trial but just succumb to the confusion and the threat of being thrown out by the marshal.”
The landlord-tenant courtroom has grown so busy that the judge merely calls the eviction calendar each morning, then sends most of the cases to other courtrooms.
The eviction explosion has spawned several variations on the traditional practice of the law.
First came the low-cost service for tenants facing eviction.
For $50 to $75, these services provide the tenant court forms and advice in filling them out. By systematically applying every defense offered by the law, a tenant using such a service can stretch the process to six months. The services get business by mailing flyers to renters whose names appear in court eviction filings.
There are eviction services for landlords too, at corresponding prices. They are run by lawyers who supply the landlords the proper forms and help fill them out. The landlord then appears in court on his own. The risk lies in the fact that eviction law is full of procedural rules and deadlines. One mistake can send a landlord’s case back to the beginning.
Thus the opportunity was ripe for a law practice geared to high volume and low profit margin. Katz & Block came along to take advantage of it. They charge a flat $180 to file a case and another $150 if they must make a court appearance. Most days they have close to 10 cases on calendar and shuttle from courtroom to courtroom to keep them moving.
When they opened the practice in 1977, soon after graduating from law school at USC, Katz and Block worked nights and weekends, typing their own court papers because they couldn’t afford a secretary.
Now the work is shared by five attorneys and several secretaries. They catalogue their cases on a computer.
Block is the processing specialist. He stays in the office. Katz is the courtroom technician.
“I like that,” he said. “I’m a hired gun, bottom line. Somebody pays me money to go out there and fight their battle with this tenant. I like the fight. I like one-on-one competition. I like fighting.”
In action, Katz appears to be more of a psychological warrior than a legal one. One day recently he won two cases in half an hour without having to call a witness.
The day began in Division 20 of the downtown Municipal Court. Its doors creaked open at 8:30 a.m. About 100 people in jeans and sweaters and T-shirts funneled through the doors and filled the spectator bay. They were the landlords and tenants.
Another 20 men and a couple of women in professional dress squeezed through the crowd and jockeyed for seats near the bench. They were the lawyers.
Katz had seven cases on the calendar. The judge assigned them to four courtrooms, sending Katz and an assistant out at double time.
They were rushing to the trial courts ahead of the defendants to get a key piece of information.
Katz learned that the defendants in his first two cases had filed declarations of poverty excusing them from paying court costs.
In other words, he said “the flake doesn’t have the money.”
“I know it. The judge knows it. The other attorney knows it. Everybody knows he doesn’t have any money. So you’ve got to kind of play social worker,” Katz said.
Social work or gunfight, it happened in the hallway.
Katz called the name of his first defendant--a young Latino couple followed him outside the courtroom. They had no attorney. They didn’t speak English.
Katz found a translator, his client in another case.
He wrote up an agreement offering the couple two weeks beyond their eviction date and postponing the payment of back rent until they could get a new apartment. They signed. Case closed in five minutes.
Wants Day in Court
The second defendant was a young man in a polo shirt. He didn’t have a lawyer either.
His case was a little offbeat. He said he already had a new apartment. But he wanted his day in court.
He showed Katz a legal brief he had written himself and delivered some aggressive words about implied breach of contract. That suggested he intended to claim that his apartment wasn’t fit to live in.
“Maybe we can work something out,” Katz told him with a fraternity-brother smile. “If it doesn’t work out, ‘No harm, no foul.’ We’ll go in and let the judge decide.”
After some haggling, Katz settled on $360 as the rent owed.
“What if my clients will take it as a wash?” he asked. “You don’t owe them anything and they don’t owe you anything.”
The man’s determination crumbled.
Katz found his clients, a middle-aged couple. They agreed to the deal. Back in the hall, the tenant wavered.
“Will this show up on TRW?” he asked.
Katz told him that as a no-money judgment it would not show up as an unpaid debt on TRW’s massive credit reporting system.
The man signed. Case closed in 15 minutes. Day in court over.
About two-thirds of the firm’s evictions never go to court, he said. The tenants simply give in to the inevitable and move.
Of the third that decide to fight, about 85% settle in court without a trial. Trials seldom last an hour.
It isn’t pretty law. But it is fast.
The fundamental principle, Katz said later, is never to talk law in the hallway, just dates and dollars. In this view of the case, nobody wins and everybody loses.
“That’s why a lot of attorneys don’t like this field, because their client is never happy,” he said. “The landlord wanted this deadbeat tenant out two weeks ago when he first stopped paying the rent. The tenant’s not happy. He doesn’t have the money to move and he knows he has to move.”
And, though he may not intend to ever pay the back rent, he doesn’t walk off scot-free. A judgment will be recorded against him. Someday, he may be forced to pay it off in order to borrow money for a house or a car.
That is why Blasi, the Legal Aid attorney, thinks it is the tenants, not landlords, who are getting the worst of the law.
He concedes that tenants have made substantial gains in the letter of the law, particularly in a 1974 state Supreme Court decision, Green vs. San Francisco, which held that a tenant can withhold rent to force a landlord to make repairs.
But he doesn’t think tenants have translated those gains into courtroom power.
Very Few Successful
“In practice, very few Green defenses are successful,” Blasi said. “That is because very few tenants are well-represented or have well-prepared cases. Landlords are well-represented, and their cases are well-prepared.
“When I go by Division 20, I don’t have the sense that there are a lot of tenants taking advantage of landlords there. I have the sense that there are a lot of human tragedies there.”
Katz, meanwhile, is energetically pursuing his personal goal. He doesn’t angle for humanitarian awards. He doesn’t seek the adulation of his peers. He doesn’t aspire to argue before the Supreme Court.
His aim was to do a simple task so well that it made him wealthy. At 34, he has mastered it.
“From here I go to retirement” by age 40, he said. “I’ll pay the dues. I’ll fight your battle for you. I’ll put up with the nonsense and the crap that you don’t want to. But, darn it, I’m the one who’s going to get to Shangri-La.’ ”