A judge has ruled in favor of four Ohio University students who sued one of Athens bigger student landlords.
The four claimed that during winter quarter 2012 John Wharton of University Off-Campus Housing blocked their access to the basement of the house they were renting from him; did loud construction work that damaged their personal property; and sent workers into the house repeatedly without their permission.
In a ruling issued Oct. 18, Athens County Common Pleas Judge Michael Ward ordered Wharton (operating as University Off-Campus Housing) to pay a total of $3,941 in damages to his former tenants.
He also found Wharton in contempt for violating a court order. The judge said Wharton apparently didn't violate the order deliberately, but Ward still fined him $500. Wharton can avoid the fine if he completes a class at OU on landlord-tenant law by the end of the year.
Students Bradley Brewer, Benjamin Greenberg, Corey Callahan and Andrew Janosik had signed an 11-month lease through June 2012, for a house on North High Street. During winter break, without notifying the tenants, Wharton started construction to add two bedrooms and a bathroom in the basement, and replace the furnace.
When the tenants got back they found the basement, including the washer and dryer, closed off, and items they had stored in the basement moved upstairs. There were also allegedly problems with the heat shutting off.
When construction started Feb. 14, a power surge caused by the work destroyed some small appliances.
At one point the students entered the basement to try to get their furnace going; this led to a confrontation with Wharton that both sides described as "heated," in which he allegedly told them the construction would continue and they couldn't stop it.
They then contacted OU's Center for Student Legal Services. Attorney Melissa Greenlee got an injunction, ordering Wharton to stop construction, restore a working washer and dryer, and remove any construction materials. The work reportedly continued, however.
In their lawsuit, the students claimed Wharton violated state landlord-tenant law; breached their rental contract and right to "quiet enjoyment" of their home; committed fraud by falsely promising to stop the construction; and committed negligence by failing to keep the house safe and habitable.
Ward found Wharton did breach the tenants' right to quiet enjoyment, and also the rental contract, because he "did not ask (their) permission… if he could stop their use of the basement so that he could renovate it."
The judge noted that the only reason for the work was to add bedrooms and a bathroom. "The furnace replacement was not a 'repair' to benefit the (current tenants)," he wrote.
Ward ruled that Wharton broke landlord-tenant law every time he had workers enter the home without 24 hours notice, which happened daily from Feb. 16-27. Even if Wharton had given notice each time, the judge added, "this repeated demand would have had the effect of harassing the plaintiffs" under Ohio law.
On the "indirect civil contempt" citation, Ward noted that an entry was signed Feb. 24, which was supposed to stop the construction, but work took place Feb. 27 and 28. This was apparently because Wharton's attorney had not immediately faxed him the entry for signing, but even if this is true, the judge wrote, it should not disadvantage the tenants.
Ward granted the plaintiffs $3,697 in compensatory damages, to cover such things as loss of access to the basement, and "loss of heat, power, water, discomfort and inconvenience, including loss of access to laundry facilities." He also granted one tenant, Greenberg, individual damages of $244 to pay for his microwave oven, two surge protectors, a fan, a coffee maker, and some perishable food items.
The judge denied a request for punitive damages, ruling Wharton "did not demonstrate hatred, ill will or spirit of revenge which would constitute malice" and justify such damages.
Though the plaintiffs were represented by CSLS – for which they each paid a fee of only $25 per quarter – Ward found they're entitled to have Wharton pay their attorney fees. A hearing on that issue is set for Nov. 16.
Greenlee declined to comment on the case, and Wharton's attorney, Kenneth Ryan, could not be reached Tuesday or Wednesday.