A Sonoma County judge has upheld a $42,000 default judgment against a former Sebastopol-area tenant accused by past landlords of scamming them out of thousands of dollars in rent and damaging their property.
Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum issued the decision in response to a motion by Gwendolyn Smith to set aside judgment because her lawyer, Gary Paul Levinson of Orange County, was not present at an earlier hearing.
In making his findings, Daum noted a pattern of delay by Smith in an eviction case dating back to November 2008, a nearly identical situation involving Smith in her subsequent tenancy and a “documented history of doing the same things in other jurisdictions.”
He ruled the failure to appear was not because of “mistake, surprise or excusable neglect” and concluded Smith -- a paralegal who has claims against her in Arizona and Wisconsin -- had filed the motion as a tactical maneuver.
“This court would have to pay studious inattention to the obvious not to suspect the seeking of some further technical advantage in this case,” Daum wrote in his eight-page ruling dated Aug. 16.
“The court refuses to do this...accordingly, the motion to set aside judgment is denied.”
Smith, who left her subsequent west county rental earlier this month, about an hour before an eviction hearing, could not be located for comment.
Her lawyer, Levinson, did not return a call to his Newport Beach office.
Court documents show Smith and her teenage son rented Barbara Wilt's Brookside Avenue apartment in August 2008, listing her lawyer as co-tenant.
Almost immediately, Smith complained about the condition of the apartment and stopped paying rent. She also wouldn't allow Wilt in to inspect the unit.
When Smith refused to leave by October 31, Wilt sued. Smith attempted to stall a scheduled January trial, filing motions and appeals all the way to the California Supreme Court.
Then, in February 2009, Smith and her son moved to another apartment just a few miles away owned by west county resident Constance Cook. A similar pattern ensued. On the eve of an eviction hearing, the two packed up their belongings and moved out.
Wilt's suit came before Daum in April. Levinson claimed he was in a child dependency trial in Orange County and could not attend a hearing. In his absence, Daum ruled in favor of Wilt, awarding her triple damages because of the egregious nature of the claim.
Smith filed a motion to set aside damages but it was rejected.
Meanwhile, Cook said earlier this month she was owed 18 months of back rent and the cost of repairs for damage Smith allegedly caused to her converted barn apartment.
A hearing in Cook's case against Smith is set for Sept. 1.