Making It in the Bay

‘It Ended up Pretty Much Being Hell on Earth:' Tenants Fight SF Landlord in Court

The tenants say their landlord harassed them until they couldn't take it anymore. She denies it.

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Jennifer Sarkany and her partner Ramsey Abouremeleh say they moved into the Outer Sunset home they rented in 2018 expecting the best. They were looking for a safe neighborhood close to Sarkany’s school.

Instead, they say the next eight months were a waking nightmare, eventually leading to an acrimonious legal battle against their landlord Christie West.

“It ended up pretty much being hell on earth,” Sarkany said.

Two other tenants, Sandra Fierro and Nina Robin, moved into the house around the same time, and would also end up as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against West alleging a pattern of harassment, wrongful eviction attempts, and negligence, among other issues.

The tenants say West lived in an unpermitted downstairs unit at the house and allowed a steady stream of people to stay in the garage, leading to disturbances and safety concerns.

Abouremeleh said the situation with West really went south when they asked her to deal with routine maintenance issues around the house.

“When we asked Ms. West to make basic repairs, we started getting barrages of phone calls, texts, and her mood would switch from being really happy to incredibly angry,” Abouremeleh said.

The tenants said West’s behavior began affecting their employment and made them feel unsafe in their own home.

Fierro, who works as an EMT, said West called her boss attempting to get her fired.

“[West said] I’m a racist, a monster,” Fierro said. “That caused me to have a breakdown.”

Fierro showed NBC Bay Area an email she received from Alameda County’s Emergency Medical Services Agency, which stated West had filed a complaint against her, but the agency had found no basis to pursue any action against Fierro’s EMT certificate.

Fierro said West’s messages were often hurtful, such as the response West sent to a complaint about possible mice in the house, in which West offered to let Fierro borrow sheep shears. Fierro said she took that as an apparent reference to her long curly hair.

“There are no mice and there are no rats in your home and do not tell the new renter any of your ridiculous stories or I will sue you for slander and if you need my sheep shears let me know,” the text message Fierro showed NBC Bay Area stated.

Abourmeleh said West withheld their mail, followed him in her car, and told police he was a peeping Tom.

The tenants also accused West of routinely threatening them with eviction and said she would enter the home without their permission, which they say was captured on a surveillance camera the tenants installed after an apparent break-in attempt.

“Ms. West would just constantly intrude on any privacy we had,” Abouremeleh said. “It was insane. I can’t believe we were able to tough it out for as long as we did.”

“I really just tried to not be home at all costs,” Sarkany said. “I would study at school. I would be at work and sleep in my car sometimes when I had breaks in between classes.”

West agreed to speak with NBC Bay Area about the allegations against her, but said she was limited in what she could say because of the ongoing litigation.

“Allegations made by the plaintiffs aren’t necessarily true and so if I choose not to defend myself here it’s because I have to do it in court.”

But West said she’s a good landlord, and points to a tenant she’s had for 18 years as a testament to her character.

While West said she could not respond to many of the specific claims made against her, she denied entering her tenants’ space without permission.

“It’s not true,” West said. “I will say this: I have never entered a premises that belonged to somebody else in my entire life as a landlord. Never.”

In October 2018, just eight months after moving in, the tenants said they’d had enough. They moved out and sued West.

"I feel like she's preying on people who have nowhere else to go," Sarkany said. "We're low income, we had nowhere else to go."

San Francisco court records show at least eight other former tenants of West have filed claims against her in civil or small claims court, alleging a broad range of issues. There are also more than a dozen combined complaints against West at the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection and San Francisco Rent Board, about issues ranging from habitability issues in the house to wrongful eviction attempts.

“It’s just been an endless string of tenants, who one-after-the-other move in and one-after-the-other move out,” said Mark Hooshmand, a tenant rights attorney representing Sarkany and her former housemates. “And they all have similar experiences.”

In January, a jury sided with the tenants in their lawsuit against West.

But West said her attorneys are seeking a new trial based on monetary sanctions the judge imposed on Hooshmand related to pre-trial witness intimidation during the deposition of a defense witness and documents the court mistakenly provided to the jury that were prohibited from the trial.

“The information that was given to [the jury] was highly prejudicial without explanation,” West said.

Hooshmand said West was grasping at straws.

“Monetary sanctions happen frequently pre-trial and that is not basis for a new trial,” Hooshmand said.

NBC Bay Area spoke to two other tenants not involved in the legal case. One current tenant said West has been a great landlord and has never entered her living space without approval.

But one former tenant, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, told a different story.

“Just trying to get her to maintain anything around the house would quickly escalate to verbal abuse and false accusation and threats,” the former tenant said.

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