Landlords seek remedy to tenants who destory property
BISMARCK - A Fargo landlord came to legislators Wednesday looking for a way to hold renters accountable for recklessly damaging apartments.
Mike Eisert, who has 39 rental units in Fargo, told the House Judiciary Committee the law doesn't give him a remedy when tenants willfully trash his property.
In one case, tenants left one of Eisert's houses with five kicked-in doors, 11 broken windows, a plugged bathtub and damage to ceiling tiles and walls, totaling $7,000.
Eisert said that kind of thing doesn't happen often, but "when it does it's pretty devastating."
Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, sponsored House Bill 1393 at the request of Eisert and other Fargo apartment owners.
In North Dakota, it is a class A misdemeanor for anyone, through recklessness, to damage another's property in excess of $2,000.
The bill would specifically make it a misdemeanor for a tenant or guest of a tenant to recklessly cause more than $1,000 worth of damage to a landlord's property.
Eisert said he can take the tenants to small claims court, but it's often difficult to collect the money he's owed.
"We want to put some teeth in this," Eisert said.
Bob Roesler, who owns eight rental properties in Fargo-Moorhead, also attended the hearing but did not testify. He said he's had similar difficulty getting tenants to pay for damaged property, even when he wins small claims suits.
"In 99 percent of them, you don't collect a nickel," Roesler said.
The North Dakota Association of Counties opposed the bill on behalf of state's attorneys.
Aaron Birst, the association's legal counsel, said putting someone in jail is not necessarily going to get the landlords their money, either.
The committee gave the bill a do-not pass recommendation and forwarded it to the full House.
Rep. Duane DeKrey, R-Pettibone, chairman of the committee, said members felt the remedy Eisert is seeking is already in the law.
In the case Eisert referenced, prosecutors declined to charge the tenants.
After the hearing, DeKrey said he'd prefer to see landlords take it upon themselves to find a solution that wouldn't require legislation.
Apartment associations could establish a database with information about renters, DeKrey said. That way, tenants would risk damaging their apartment rating, similar to a credit rating.
Legislators also heard testimony on a separate bill that related to Eisert's complaints.
House Bill 1404, sponsored by Kasper, would allow people to appeal small claims court decisions. It also would give people the opportunity to choose a different judge or referee in small claims cases.
Eisert said he took tenants to small claims court for $5,000 and had documentation to back up his claims, but the judge awarded about half of that.
Eisert said the judge didn't explain her rationale and he had no way to appeal. He also didn't think the judge was knowledgeable about what it takes to repair damages.
South Central Judicial District Judge Bruce Haskel testified against the bill because he said it would have unintended consequences.
"It would be a real burden on our judicial resources," Haskel said.
In Cass County, 1,200 small claims cases were filed last year, so if even half of those were appealed it would create a huge workload for judges, Haskel said.
Small claims cases are meant to be efficient and cheap, and allowing appeals would change that process, Haskel said.
In Eisert's case, he could have taken it to district court rather than small claims and that would have allowed him an appeal, Haskel said.
The element of letting people choose what judge hears their case would be particularly difficult for rural counties, he said.
The committee will likely give a do-not pass recommendation to the bill, DeKrey said.