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A Santa Rosa family who lived in a mold-plagued apartment and their lawyers will split $1.3 million in the most expensive substandard housing verdict in Sonoma County history.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Knoel Owen approved $643,435 in fees for the family's attorneys Monday. Earlier this year, a jury awarded $694,550 to tenant Tina Rogers and her 8-year-old son, David.

The jury unanimously agreed that two Tiburon landlords and a Santa Rosa property manager, Molln Properties, knowingly rented an apartment to the Rogers that was a health hazard. Jurors agreed the defendants refused to make repairs and retaliated when Tina Rogers asked for help.

``Nobody deserves to live in that kind of environment,'' said Keith Byers, jury foreman for the four-week trial.

The property owners and Molln Properties have appealed the verdict, saying in court documents that the award was excessive. They said the conditions in the apartment were mainly Tina Rogers' fault. In addition, they contended testimony that the mold and cockroaches affected the Rogers' health was scientifically unreliable.

They declined to discuss the case because it is under appeal.

``The amount of the verdict alone demonstrates that the jury was motivated by passion and prejudice, (and) did not listen to the evidence,'' Santa Rosa attorney Heather Smith wrote in her argument supporting the appeal.

She also said it was unfair to conduct the trial without the presence of property owners Ann and Joseph Colletto, whose poor health prevented them from attending.

``On a good day'' the case had a reasonable value of $20,000 to $40,000, Smith said.

Most of the jurors disagreed, awarding $694,550 to compensate Rogers for living in an unhealthy apartment plagued by mold for more than three years, Byers said. Three jurors voted for a lesser amount. The award did not include punitive damages.

Payment is postponed until resolution of the appeal, which could take more than a year, said Santa Rosa attorney Edie Sussman, who represented the Rogerses.

The $1.3 million award is a record in a county where landlords are paying increasingly large jury awards and legal settlements in response to charges they rented substandard housing.

It has spurred several industry seminars to help landlords adequately remediate mold, Santa Rosa attorneys said.

Tina and David Rogers moved into the 18-unit apartment complex at 2807 Ventura Ave. in Santa Rosa in August 1999.

Rogers, 41, had worked in the hospitality and grocery industries for 20 years, she said. In 1999, she was recovering from treatment for malignant melanoma, a cancer that was being kept in check with chemotherapy.

She said she told Molln Properties she needed a clean, quiet place to heal. She loved the Ventura Avenue apartment because it had a big patio, a tree and a fenced yard, where then-3-year-old David could play safely.

``I thought it was going to be real peaceful for me,'' Rogers said.

The Rogers were Section 8 tenants, who receive assistance under a federal subsidy program. The federal government helped to pay their rent because Tina couldn't work. The two-bedroom unit rented for $795, later raised to $890. Rogers said she paid about half and taxpayers paid about half.

Soon after the Rogers moved in, black mold began to cover the newly painted walls and spread throughout the apartment, in spite of repeated scrubbings with bleach, Tina Rogers said. Later she learned that earlier tenants complained of the same problems, as have tenants who came after her, according to court testimony.

Dishes and knickknacks sprouted mold, Rogers testified. Bedding was damp each morning. The floor buckled. The rug was wet. Furniture and clothes rotted. A sump pump under the house rumbled day and night, pumping water that collected under the complex. Walls weren't insulated. Cockroaches thrived.

David developed asthma, and Tina grew a fungus on her lungs -- illnesses unrelated to the conditions in the apartment, according to Molln Properties.

When Tina Rogers pleaded for repairs, Molln Properties told her to clean more often, move her furniture away from the wall and use fans, according to court documents. They said using hot water in the bathroom was causing the moisture inside the apartment. They said she had too much furniture to allow proper ventilation.

Rogers complained about the conditions to city officials.

``My cozy little home has become a nightmare,'' Rogers wrote city officials in a five-page letter in March 2000. ``Please send someone out here to see the damage this has caused. Please.''

City housing officials later said they didn't understand in 2000 the problems that mold could cause. They said they didn't want to force Rogers to move because Section 8 housing was in short supply, and they thought she and Molln Properties would jointly find a solution.

Rogers said she tried to find another apartment, but demand for Section 8 housing far exceeded supply and waiting lists were long. At the same time, she kept thinking Molln Properties would fix the problems, she said.

Santa Rosa attorney Phil Kelly, who represents the Collettos and Molln Properties, said Rogers had alternatives she chose not to use, such as her mother's home.

When her complaints grew more insistent, Molln Properties threatened to evict her, Rogers said, which could have meant the loss of her Section 8 assistance. The jury later called this retaliation.

Finally, in November 2002, Rogers heard of another Santa Rosa apartment through a friend, where she lives happily today with David and her 17-month-old daughter, Alisa.

She went to see Sussman on the advice of Fair Housing of Sonoma County, a Santa Rosa nonprofit that works on housing issues, because she wanted the Collettos and Molln Properties to replace belongings she said had rotted from mold.

``She wasn't even asking for compensation. She just wanted her belongings replaced,'' juror Byers said.

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