DENTON COUNTY — You may remember Holly McDuffie. She lived in what she called “the crappiest house in Roanoke.”
McDuffie moved out earlier this month. Two days later, Roanoke city officials deemed the house uninhabitable, posting this sign: “Do not enter. Unsafe to occupy.”
In a Denton County courtroom on Wednesday, McDuffie squared off against her former landlord, Khosrow Sadeghian. He has been featured in a series of News 8 stories highlighting substandard, unsafe conditions at many of his properties.
A Facebook page, Stop Khosrow Sadeghian, has been started. Denton code officials have described him as a problem landlord. The litany of problems that current and former tenants of Sadeghian have described raise significant questions about whether current state laws do enough to protect the rights of tenants.
McDuffie walked away Wednesday with a judgment in her favor. It ordered that Sadeghian pay more than $2,600 in attorney’s fees.
“We are very pleased with the court’s decision,” said her attorney, Greg Whitten. “I was still frankly somewhat disappointed in court that Mr. Sadeghian wanted to blame everybody else for his own problems.”
In his filing with the court, Sadeghian claimed McDuffie hadn't paid him in six months, and owed $4,285 in rent and late fees. Sadeghian filed to evict McDuffie after she and her family moved out.
“They were perpetually late,” Sadeghian told Justice of the Peace J.W. Hand.
The landlord blamed the problems with the rental house on McDuffie and her family.
McDuffie insisted all of that was not true.
Code enforcement records support McDuffie’s account about the condition of the house.
A city report cited a long list of substandard conditions, including exposed wiring; buckling floors; plumbing problems; a sagging roof; and a cracking foundation.
The report noted “numerous lights do not work inside” and the “A/C runs but at no time when we were there was it cooling.”
McDuffie told News 8 that she did not realize until April — when she asked Sadeghian for an account statement — that he had charged her for hundreds of dollars in late fees. That ledger shows she was making her rent payments, but late fees were stacking up.
Other tenants recounted similar stories, saying Sadeghian lets them build up massive late fees without telling them. More late fees accrue each month, putting them further and further behind.
Sadeghian cited the property code in saying, “I don’t have to do anything” if a tenant is behind on the rent. When a tenant owes the late fees, any money sent to the landlord goes first to pay the late fees... then is applied to the rent.
Hand declined to comment specifically on McDuffie’s case, but said he has seen many of these situations in his courtroom over the years.
“In general, if your rent is current, you’re on solid ground,” Hand said. “And that is the mistake that most tenants make. They say, ‘Well they haven’t fixed this, so I just won’t pay them.’”
The law is clear: A tenant who isn’t current on the rent loses standing in court, the judge said, adding that he has a problem with a landlord letting late fees build up without notifying the tenant.
“The whole idea is fairness,” the judge said. “That should be clear in the law. [Tenants] don’t realize, ‘Hey, all this money I’m paying is not going to pay my rent.'"
Hand said the laws need to clarified to ensure that landlords notify tenants in a timely manner so late fees do not build up.
Many tenants don’t realize that sending e-mails and text messages to a landlord about repairs doesn’t count under state law, he said.
The laws need a general overhaul, Hand said.
“It needs to be simplified,” he said. “That’s for sure.”
Most eviction hearings are over in a matter of minutes, but Wednesday's stretched on for two hours. McDuffie’s attorney even called a City of Roanoke code inspector to testify.
Sadeghian initially told Hand that he wanted to withdraw his eviction case against McDuffie. He said he was doing so because she had moved out.
What Sadeghian didn’t realize was that when he did so, he became subject to paying McDuffie’s legal fees.
Sadeghian became visibly angry, calling McDuffie’s lawyer a “shameful attorney” and a “leech.” At one point, Sadeghian attempted to withdraw his motion to non-suit. He tried to convince Hand to put off the hearing until his attorney could be there.
“These people are just horrible,” Sadeghian said. “I’m not going to let this attorney make money.”
He vowed to appeal the judge’s decision.
Camille Maxwell, whose story was detailed with McDuffie’s, has had her own recent troubles with Sadeghian since the story aired.
At her Collin County house, the master bathroom had caved in and she lives in fear that the house may simply collapse around her because the master support beam has cracked in several places.
A few days after the story was broadcast, Sadeghian called Maxwell and demanded that she publicly apologize. He told her if she did not do so, he was going to post her name and what she owned him on the Internet, according to an audio recording.
“I understand that you’re trying to make us look bad everywhere,” Sadeghian told Maxwell. “Now here’s what I’m gonna do: Make sure you understand what goes around comes around. What you did to us is not a big deal to me, because I have a good reputation with all the tenants that I have.”
He told Maxwell that he was going to show “everybody what kind of person you are and what you owe us ... You’re not going to win.”
The day after that call, Maxwell received notice of an eviction lawsuit, claiming she had not paid rent for the “past year” and stating that she and her husband owed $7,931.
On Tuesday, in a different court, Sadeghian lost a case against Maxwell.
The judge in that case concluded that Sadeghian did not send a notice to vacate as required by law, even though an employee testified that it had been. The judge ordered that Sadeghian pay about $2,000 in attorney’s fees.
Maxwell has found another house and plans to move out soon. As he has done in other cases, Sadeghian accused Maxwell of tearing up his property.
He promised to appeal that judgment, too.
“We’re going to get justice,” Sadeghian said. “I’m sure we will prevail.”