A CURIOUS CASE: ARE THESE SQUATTERS PREDATORS OR PREY?
A STARTLING DISCOVERY
Today I appeared in court on behalf of a property manager who filed an eviction suit after finding their listed (and recently vacant) property occupied. The discovery was made when the manager took a prospect to the property for a showing.
Boy, were they were shocked to find the locks changed, and occupants in the property…
The manager did the obvious thing – called the police. When the police arrived, the occupant said that they had rented the property through an internet ad. They showed the officer a copy (on a mobile phone) of an ad and texts (903 area code) relating to a rental application, but no receipts or lease. Plus the ad related to another property, and the emails didn’t indicate whether the application was approved, or which property it pertained to.
In short, the occupant had no credible evidence that she had entered into a lease with anybody. Her story about how she secured the keys or access to the property were very murky, but she insisted that she had paid rent and was authorized to be there under a lease.
Probably perplexed, the police classified the dispute as a “civil matter,” and did not require the occupants to vacate. They did ask the occupant to supply whatever information they had about the mystery “lessor.”
A PLEA FOR LEGAL HELP
The property manager and her owner (who is stationed overseas ) were beside themselves. After exchanging a few texts, I received a call from the manager explaining the information above – all of which is, admittedly, second-hand.
I instructed the manager to furnish verbal notice to vacate in the presence of the officer, pursuant to Section 24.005(d), Texas Property Code, and to go file an eviction petition the following morning. I advised her that the occupants had committed a forcible entry (as defined in Section 24.001), and that the verbal NTV could demand that the occupant vacate immediately.
A PLAN FOR PROMPT ACTION, SOON THWARTED
I explained to the manager the process of requesting “immediate” possession under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 510.5. Not being ultra-familiar with the rarely-employed “immediate possession bond,” I seem to recall the process being significantly more “immediate” (i.e. quick) than the text of the Rule actually provides.
Indeed, a close reading of the rule illustrates the rather “non-immediate” nature of the process.
RULE 510.5. REQUEST FOR IMMEDIATE POSSESSION
(a) Immediate Possession Bond. The plaintiff may, at the time of filing the petition or at any time prior to final judgment, file a possession bond to be approved by the judge in the probable amount of costs of suit and damages that may result to defendant in the event that the suit has been improperly instituted, and conditioned that the plaintiff will pay defendant all such costs and damages that are adjudged against plaintiff.
(b) Notice to Defendant. The court must notify a defendant that the plaintiff has filed a possession bond. The notice must be served in the same manner as service of citation and must inform the defendant that if the defendant does not file an answer or appear for trial, and judgment for possession is granted by default, an officer will place the plaintiff in possession of the property on or after the 7th day after the date defendant is served with the notice.
(c) Time for Issuance and Execution of Writ. If judgment for possession is rendered by default and a possession bond has been filed, approved, and served under this rule, a writ of possession must issue immediately upon demand and payment of any required fees. The writ must not be executed before the 7th day after the date defendant is served with notice under (b).
(d) Effect of Appearance. If the defendant files an answer or appears at trial, no writ of possession may issue before the 6th day after the date a judgment for possession is signed or the day following the deadline for the defendant to appeal the judgment, whichever is later.
Nevertheless, I encouraged the manager to file a possession bond, which I prepared for her (as “surety”) and the owner (as “principal”). She filed the bond and eviction petition.
The justice court accepted and approved the bond, and perfected service and notice upon the occupants.
THE DAY OF TRIAL
One week later, I appeared at court with the manager, fully expecting that the occupants would not appear. Despite my confidence that we would obtain a default, I was prepared for trial, as I learned long ago to always be prepared and to expect the unexpected.
As we were waiting for the Judge, the tenant walked in and approached us from the rear.
The first thing I noticed was her body odor, followed by the poor quality (prison?) tattoos unfortunately located on her face and hands. Once I got past the initial shock (perhaps disgust), I noticed that she was shaking and obviously nervous. She handed me her mobile phone so I could read the same screenshots she had shown the police officer. I explained to her that they were irrelevant because they didn’t identify the property.
Next she handed me a crumpled, poor quality lease. It was a standard fill-in-the-blank form from Nolo.com with blanks sloppily filled in in child-like handwriting. I asked who wrote the lease, and he occupant said it was the person who she rented from. This person was either in Chicago or New York, but she wasn’t sure.
I pressed for details and was told the following by the occupant:
- They found the property online
- They never met the person advertising the property in person
- They did meet a person who delivered them the lease
- They never saw or had access to the property’s interior prior to signing the lease 9and paying)
- They paid $5200 – first month rent, last month rent and security deposit ($1700 each – math doesn’t add up)
- They made their payment at Walmart using “Money Gram”
- They did not have a receipt for payment, but requested one from Walmart
- They received the keys from someone other than the person they paid (who is supposedly in Chicago or New York)
- They did not see any of the property manager’s signs (there were 2 in the yard)
Of course, the phone number the tenants had for the person they were texting (who they thought was the landlord) was both long distance (area code 903) and disconnected.
I was struck by the conviction with which this poor woman spoke. Though I obviously wasn’t buying her story, she was respectful, answering my interrogation with “yes sir” and “no sir.” Based on emails she showed me, she was also continuing to (at least half-heartedly) supply information to the police officer.
TRUTH IS ELUSIVE
Truth is, I didn’t know – and still don’t (perhaps I never will) – whether I was dealing with master cons or with ignorant and vulnerable victims of the most basic and flimsy scam.
Admittedly, sympathy played a role in my advice to the manager and my approach in court. In addition to the nagging feeling that the occupant could be telling the truth (though likely was not), I was also bothered by her pathetic nature. She was obviously in poor health, and had experienced a rough go in life. Even though I handle evictions every week, I never take pleasure in removing people from their place of residence.
Ultimately, the manager was awarded immediate possession of the property, but allowed the occupant to stay for 1 week, conditioned upon payment the following morning.
TO BE CONTINUED…