On a quiet, sycamore-lined street in Reseda in the sprawling San Fernando Valley, Shura Rafaelov, a 65-year-old immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, runs a small day care in her home. Rafaelov's house bustles with the pleasant clamor of a dozen children of Russian heritage, from infants rocking in cribs to 5-year-olds jumping on play sets under the shade of a towering fig.
Rafaelov, slight of build and olive-skinned, is warm, soft-spoken and exceedingly gentle. She beams as she describes how she cares for and educates those kids.
But her cheery tone evaporates when she recounts certain events of the past five years. In December 2004, Rafaelov placed ads in some Russian-language newspapers promoting her services or, as she says, "looking for children." Soon after, she got a call from a desperate-sounding woman seeking work.
Rafaelov didn't need anyone, and besides, the state strictly regulates day care employees. But there was something about the timbre of the woman's voice, the urgency of her plea for work — any kind of work — that invoked Rafaelov's sympathy.
An educated woman who was a pharmacist in Uzbekistan, Rafaelov knows the struggles of a new immigrant with poor language skills and an underappreciated professional background. She told the woman, Zina, she could come over and help clean her house.
Just before Christmas, a tall and unkempt woman in her late 40s arrived at the gate of Rafaelov Day Care. For seven hours, Rafaelov and Zina dusted, mopped floors, did laundry and put away toys, books, musical instruments and booster seats. While Rafaelov prepared lunch, Zina mostly sipped tea and spoke of living with her brother in squalid conditions, sleeping on the floor because they could not afford a mattress.
She had to ride the bus everywhere. Her legs hurt.
"I felt sorry for her," Rafaelov says. "How was I supposed to know who or what she was?"
Rafaelov paid the woman $60. She felt good that she'd helped a fellow immigrant.
That seemingly innocuous interaction, nearly a decade ago, launched a legal saga that has consumed Rafaelov, caused her untold grief and strained the financial resources of her modest business. When she recalls the details now, her breathing grows labored.
Almost four years after that December day, Rafaelov was home alone when her doorbell rang. A man and a woman were at her gate, each carrying a suitcase. The woman asked Rafaelov if she remembered her. At first, she did not. It was Zina. Zina told Rafaelov they wanted to move into her house.
Rafaelov was taken aback but thought that it might be some dire emergency. She asked how long they might need to stay; Zina answered along the lines of, "It will be as long as it will be."
But Rafaelov did not know the tall man, and beyond that, everyone who lives in her home must be fingerprinted by authorities, because of the day care business. Rafaelov told Zina she didn't have the room; Zina coolly replied she knew the house was plenty big. Rafaelov started to shut the gate, but the stranger put his foot against the jamb, a menacing action.
"If you are going to be a hooligan, then I am going to call the police," Rafaelov says she warned them. At this, Zina launched a barrage of threats and anti-Semitic slurs, Rafaelov tells L.A. Weekly. Zina finished her rant by calling the kindly grandmother of six a "prostitutka."
When they left, Zina promised Rafaelov she wouldn't forget her a second time.
But Rafaelov largely did forget. Some two years later, when she received a short letter in August 2010 from a "Zina Dolenko" requesting "a copy of the records pertaining to my work in the Rafaelov's Day Care," she ignored it — as far as she knew, she says, she'd had no such employee. A few months later, Rafaelov received a complaint filed by Zina Dolenko with the California Labor Commissioner.
It accused her of serious wage violations against her one-day cleaning lady.
When Rafaelov visited the California Department of Industrial Relations' drab Division of Labor Standards Enforcement office on Van Nuys Boulevard, an official advised her to talk to Zina Dolenko — the "plaintiff" — and attempt to informally resolve things to avoid a hearing. Sitting with Zina in a conference room, she says the woman recounted her work for Rafaelov — with curious discrepancies.
Dolenko, she says, claimed she'd spent two days cleaning, and each day worked nine and a half hours — above the legal limit at which overtime kicks in. Rafaelov says Dolenko also alleged she'd worked for her in December of 2008, not 2004, freshening her claim by four years, putting it within California's statute of limitations.
Watching this unscrupulous woman at work, Rafaelov thought she probably shouldn't be surprised if Zina Dolenko demanded a couple hundred dollars.
Dolenko claimed $8 in regular wages, $36 in overtime, a stiff statutory $750 penalty against Rafaelov for ignoring the request to provide records to an "employee," costly waiting-time penalties for deficiencies in Zina's "final paycheck" — and two years of interest on all of that.
Zina wanted $3,500 to drop her case.
"I couldn't believe it!" Rafaelov says today, defiantly. "I said, 'I won't give you 3 ½ cents!' "
A few weeks later, Rafaelov got a call from Igor Zadov, owner of Dvin Market, a small Russian deli on Sherman Way. Zadov asked his longtime customer an unexpected question: "What's your last name?"
She told him it was Rafaelov, and he asked: "Are you also having a problem with Zina?" Zadov had seen the name "Shura Rafaelov" on a docket at the Van Nuys Boulevard state labor office and thought it might be his customer.
Back in 2007, Zadov tells L.A. Weekly, he had hired Zina through an ad in the L.A.-based Russian newspaper Kurier; she'd mostly sold salads and deli meats behind his counter. She was a terrible employee, Zadov says, often late or a no-show, usually rude to customers, and lasted only two months.
Three years later, Zadov got a letter from Zina Dolenko requesting her employment records. He says he only vaguely remembered employing her, and like Rafaelov, he ignored the letter — it didn't seem official, he says, and admits his bookkeeping was shoddy then. He, too, soon received a complaint filed by Zina Dolenko with the Labor Commissioner. It accused him of a slew of violations, including unpaid overtime and failure to pay minimum wage.
So Zadov dug from his files a copy of a California driver's license identifying his former employee as Zina "Doljenko." Whether Doljenko or Dolenko, he tells the Weekly, she was skewing the dates, saying she worked at Dvin in 2009 — but it had been 2007.
Rafaelov and Zadov shared their troubles with many in the Russian-speaking network in the Valley and Los Angeles. They learned they had a lot of company.
Rafaelov heard from the owner of Barin, a Tarzana Russian-cuisine restaurant that features a dance show, who'd paid Zina rather than fight a costly and unpleasant battle. So had a West Hollywood tailor specializing in bridal alterations, Luba's Tailoring. But the owner of popular Stolichnaya Bakery in West Hollywood and Bazaar Market in Tarzana, they learned, had decided to fight Zina — who used her third, and most common, last-name variant, "Dolzhenko," to accuse them of wage violations, according to documents obtained by the Weekly.
In time, these hardworking immigrants would learn more about Zina Dolenko/Doljenko/Dolzhenko and the tall man who accompanied her to hearings at the labor office and frightened Shura Rafaelov by sticking his foot in her doorjamb years earlier. He turned out to be Zina's explosive younger brother, Gennady. And his own penchant for suing mom-and-pop businesses founded by Russian immigrants eclipsed that of his sister.
The Dolzhenkos are shrouded in mystery. Former employers and opposing counsel offer hard-to-believe anecdotes about them, and bits of biographical data are scattered through case files shelved in clerks' offices where they have sued people in Burbank, Glendale, downtown, Van Nuys, Chatsworth, West Los Angeles and Santa Monica.
Those bits reveal that Gennady was born, educated and worked in Kyrgyzstan before arriving here in June 2004 — a lucky winner of the limited U.S. "diversity immigrant visa," or green card lottery, randomly awarded each year. Only about 200 were chosen from Kyrgyzstan the year Gennady got a spot.
Gennady Dolzhenko appears to have filed his first American lawsuit in 2005, when as a renter in Van Nuys he claimed housing code violations against Bluebird Investments, which managed the property from which he was evicted. Gennady sued and Bluebird settled; thus an American career was born. (Gennady and Zina Dolzhenko did not respond to several email requests for comment from L.A. Weekly, sent to addresses they gave the courts.)
About two weeks after suing Bluebird, and a year after he failed his driving test at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Winnetka, Gennady boldly sued the DMV.
Letters he and Zina wrote to high-ranking DMV officials blamed the agency for causing Gennady to "lead a miserable life without a car" and preventing him from getting a job.
The DMV drolly advised Dolzhenko to simply retake the test. He argued that the examiner who tested him "was not emotionally steady." Gennady wrote: "The score sheet looks disgusting because of an examiner's dirty and sloppy marks."
Gennady failed to shake an eye-popping $25,000 in damages from the state.
Four years later he sued Fry's Electronics in Burbank for failing to stock a television converter box the store advertised online, causing him, he claimed in court documents, to be "deprived of television entertainment for almost two years."
But mostly, the Weekly has found, in hundreds of pages of court and state Labor Commissioner documents, Gennady sues small electronic-repair shops whose Russian and Armenian owners hire him as an act of kindness toward a Russian-speaker desperate for work. Using the L.A. County Superior Court as his unwitting abettor and hamstrung state officials as witnesses, he taps a fear harbored by those who once lived in the Communist bloc — that of being falsely accused before government authorities — to try to squeeze money from them.
Court records and witness interviews reveal that Zina finds her brother jobs, drafts and serves his legal documents, and advocates as his court-approved Russian interpreter.
With Zina's aid, Gennady Dolzhenko has filed nearly 30 legal actions, including appeals and petitions for writs. She has pursued at least nine claims of her own.
"They picked a great state in which to do it," says Kimberly Stone, president of the Civil Justice Association of California, a Sacramento group that lobbies for judicial reform. The Dolzhenkos' lawsuits, Stone says, are a case study illustrating why California is ranked the nation's No. 1 "Judicial Hellhole" — an ignominious designation by the American Tort Reform Association, which compares the fairness of the 50 states' civil justice systems.
Business owners like Rafaelov and Zadov, who refuse to pay to settle the siblings' allegations of employment wrongdoing, must fight two savvy litigants who can disrupt their businesses and lives for years.
The Dolzhenkos incur no serious costs. They always appear pro per — acting as their own attorneys — and claim financial hardship to get their filing fees waived by judges who are unaware of their history.
Stone, whose group successfully backed AB 2274 to strengthen California's vexatious-litigant law, explains that because L.A. Superior Court judges, according to records, waived the $435 court filing fee in all of Gennady Dolzhenko's cases, taxpayers effectively subsidized his abuse of the system. The system "basically encourages litigation and makes it difficult for defendants who are in the right to extricate themselves," Stone says.
Zina's prolific legal writing is characterized by jargon, gibberish and repetitive citations of case law and statutes, infused with personal attacks: "Defendant Rafaelov demonstrates her despicable nature providing fraudulent statements with the purpose to defame plaintiff and to ruin plaintiff's reputation," one declaration reads.
According to several of their Russian-speaking targets interviewed by the Weekly, they are masters at creating acrimonious, hostile ordeals. Their eight-year litigation history is marked by repeated outbursts in court, troubling threats against business owners and their lawyers — even courtroom tirades against judges and court personnel, which are repeatedly forgiven by Los Angeles judges.
At the Van Nuys courthouse, bailiffs have walked Gennady Dolzhenko out of a courtroom about half a dozen times because of his standout belligerence toward court clerks and court staff, according to Sheriff's Lt. Ken Talianko, who runs security there.
The pair might have continued this way indefinitely if Gennady hadn't sued the Armenian owner of a well-established audio, video and medical devices repair shop in Montebello.
Eric Boyajian, founder of Digitron Electronics, got a call in 2010 from a friend who said a Russian-speaking brother and sister were in his office — desperate for work. In a cross-complaint Boyajian filed much later against Dolzhenko, which was obtained by the Weekly, Boyajian noted that he didn't need another worker but felt a kinship and decided to hire Gennady.
Boyajian stated, "He was going through a rough time in his life and claimed that he was about to be evicted from the hotel he was staying in if he didn't earn some money."
Boyajian was sad to see an engineer "in an apparently desperate situation," having faced something similar when he arrived here in the 1980s with an engineering degree.
But Dolzhenko immediately proved "surprisingly incompetent," damaging expensive electronic-testing equipment he claimed he knew how to use, Boyajian wrote.
Yet the Montebello shop owner afforded him second and third chances. Gennady boasted an engineering degree from a respected Soviet technical university in Kyrgyzstan but never produced a diploma. When he was repeatedly late due to "bus delays," Boyajian arranged a carpool for him. When Dolzhenko said "he and his sister were homeless and sleeping in the airport," Boyajian loaned him $500 rent money.
The documents show that Boyajian finally accepted that Dolzhenko was trouble and fired him. In 2011, Dolzhenko sued, accusing Boyajian of inflicting severe emotional distress by firing him to avoid paying $146 in wages. Dolzhenko's demand: $170,896 in damages.
The hefty lawsuit would become a turning point.
Repair-store owner Eric Boyajian knew a lawyer he could really trust: his son, James. (Both Boyajians have refused to comment on their case.)
James Boyajian, fresh out of Indiana University Law School, went all out for his dad. The newly minted attorney exhaustively researched Dolzhenko's voluminous legal history and alerted the judge hearing the suit to other cases Gennady had filed under various aliases.
"For seven years and counting, he has attacked generous people, job creators, lawyers and judges with endless lawsuits, labor actions, writs of mandate and appeals," James Boyajian wrote to L.A. Superior Court Judge James Dunn in asking Dunn to place an unusual restriction — that of "vexatious litigant" — on Dolzhenko's ability to sue, thus "putting an end to this madness."
It's hard to count the lawsuits the brother and sister have filed, or the money they have reaped, because of their tactic of misspelling their foreign names and the number of complaints that their targets agreed to settle before being sued. But through documents and interviews, the Weekly found that Zina followed a parallel track to her brother's, targeting mostly delis, bakeries and tailor shops.
In April 2006, Zina tried for a seamstress job advertised in Panorama, an indispensable weekly for many in L.A.'s Russian community. Luba Levina, owner of Luba's Tailoring, stated later in a declaration to the Labor Commissioner's office, written in support of Shura Rafaelov's upcoming hearing and obtained by the Weekly, that she administered a sewing test and then, as a favor, drove Zina home. She did not, however, hire Zina.
Levina, who couldn't be reached for this story, wrote in her declaration, "She went thru [sic] the roof and started cursing me with profanities, used anti-Semitic slurs and threatened to destroy my business by calling my clients."
Zina later appeared with a large man at Luba's Tailoring, demanding money and threatening reprisals, Levina wrote. Then, "My main client called and informed me that somebody called Zina called him and put a lot of dirt on me and my business."
When she received a complaint filed by Zina with the Labor Commissioner, "I paid [her] requested amount because I did not want to lose my business," Levina said.
Golden Key, a Russian deli in Van Nuys, hired Zina in January 2007 as a clerk, firing her a week later. In May of that year, Zina worked six days in Bazaar Market in Tarzana and was soon fired. International Market and Deli in Encino brought her aboard in November 2009; she lasted only a few days.
They all eventually heard from Zina in the form of a complaint from the California Labor Commissioner's office — as did the owner of Stolichnaya Bakery, Anatoly Rekechenetsky, who opened his bustling, widely known bakery 17 years ago in the heart of West Hollywood.
Tucked beside Whole Foods in a strip mall at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Fairfax, Stolichnaya is a go-to spot for traditional Eastern European pastries or a warm loaf of Russian rye. Zina, who worked there briefly, targeted him using the name Zina Dolzhenko in April 2007, first with the Labor Commissioner, then in Superior Court. Rekechenetsky told the Weekly he decided to fight back.
He explained the vulnerability of L.A.'s Russian-speaking business owners simply: "We don't speak very good English and we don't know how this system works. But they know very well how it works," he says of the Dolzhenkos.
The vast California Department of Industrial Relations, it seems, could do nothing more than present a forum for the abuse to continue, legally and technically unequipped to avert what Dolzhenko was doing. The department has no process in place to flag or prevent suspicious, or repetitive, labor actions by a person who continually files complaints with the Labor Commissioner's office. There is no such mandate under California law.
Instead, "Each case is evaluated on a case-by-case basis," says Greg Siggins, a spokesman for the Department of Industrial Relations. An extraordinary number of filings doesn't prompt an investigation. "There is no policy in place regarding the filing of frivolous wage claims," he says.
With the state of California lacking the tools to notice or prevent abuse, Russian immigrant Mark Volper started to figure it out on his own. A Moscow native who runs California Worker Advocates, he represented Rafaelov and Zadov at hearings and was the first to compile Zina's history of claims against mom-and-pop businesses.
Volper also was the first to realize that Zina continually altered her last name, which he calls "the scam Zina and Gennady perfected and then spread to the Superior Court."
At one point, Volper felt he had to petition for a restraining order against Zina's brother. Judge Leland B. Harris denied the request.
Volper believes Zina is the brains and Gennady is the engine, capable of bouncing back after each acrimonious case. Their combined court winnings and settlements have not been large — the Weekly calculates perhaps no more than $20,000 between them, but it is hard to know — yet the fear and grief they have spread is extensive, Volper says.
Their teamwork and aggression was on display in 2006, when Gennady Dolzhenko tangled with Valley Temps after he scored poorly on tests for a position as a factory assembler. Valley Temps closed his file after he sent "rude, condescending and threatening" communications, according to court documents.
Gennady then sued Valley Temps for "national origin discrimination." As the case heated up, Zina Dolzhenko suddenly appeared at the downtown offices of Squire Sanders, one of the world's largest law firms. Thomas T. Liu, an attorney handling the Valley Temps case, says Zina snuck past building security, made it to the firm's 31st-floor offices, and demanded to see him. "She refused to leave and created a ruckus," Liu says. Security escorted Zina out.
Attorney Martin Trupiano, who later represented the temp agency, tells the Weekly, "They never argue substantive issues — it's just always procedural or just ad hominem attacks. They know some companies will pay a nuisance amount to make them go away."
He's still fighting to collect attorney fees awarded by Judge Richard Adler in Van Nuys.
Five years after that case, in June 2011, Gennady sued Studio Lodge Hotel on Vanowen Street in North Hollywood, where he lived during the summer of 2010. For that case, he transposed an "l" and an "h" to come up with the name "Dolhzenko." His 88-page complaint accused the hotel proprietors of wrongful eviction and not refunding a key deposit, among other things.
Stephen Flaherty, who represented Studio Lodge, tells the Weekly: "He was told at the outset that it's not an apartment, he had to move out at the end of 28 days. When it came time to leave, he refused."
Dolzhenko was forcibly evicted but returned the next day and reclaimed the same room, which he vandalized.
Flaherty became the target of the siblings' wrath. "Defendant's 75-year-old attorney Flaherty demonstrates his despicable nature," reads one motion challenging Studio Lodge's account. Flaherty "does not remember what he had for breakfast a couple of hours ago."
No attorney has ever managed to depose the evasive Dolzhenko under oath, but Flaherty thought he might be the first. Cornered by a legal order, Gennady reported to a deposition room but "immediately started a fight with the translator," Flaherty says. Then, claiming that the stenographer's recording device violated his rights, Gennady angrily stormed out, Flaherty says.
Vagan Arutyunyan, an Armenian who owns Stone Electronics, a small repair shop sitting on a busy corner of Beverly Boulevard on the edge of the Fairfax District, knew none of this when he met Gennady in 2010. Zina had called Arutyunyan's shop, saying her brother was a skilled electronics repairman in need of a job.
Arutyunyan wasn't hiring but gave Gennady, a fellow immigrant, a chance. After Gennady broke several expensive pieces of equipment, the repair shop owner gave him $300 and sent him on his way.
A week later, Arutyunyan returned from vacation to find Gennady outside his shop, and they argued. "He told me, 'You'll see what I can do to you,' " Arutyunyan tells the Weekly.
Gennady filed a $40,000 lawsuit against him, which Arutyunyan's attorney, Rosie Barmakszian, got dismissed — but under harrowing conditions.
During court appearances, Barmakszian tells the Weekly, she asked security officers for an escort to her car because Zina attempted to stage physical confrontations with her. Among other things, Zina would stand behind the courtroom doors, then claim she was struck when the lawyer went through, Barmakszian says.
Arutyunyan, who fought the siblings for more than a year, says he thinks about Zina and Gennady every time he lights up.
"I had finally quit smoking. This guy made me start again," he says, a pack of American Spirits in hand. "Shouldn't this be illegal?"
Some Russian-speaking business owners who fled the injustices of Eastern Europe agree they are easy targets — they struggle with English, don't understand their legal protections and sometimes ignore mail they don't understand.
"They try to screw us because we don't take these things seriously. Our mentality is different," Rekechenetsky, of Stolichnaya Bakery, says of himself and his peers.
In exploiting this attitude, Zina and Gennady follow a pattern: repeated attempts to re-litigate already rendered decisions, motions intended to delay proceedings and multiple, meritless lawsuits — elements of what California calls a "vexatious litigant." A person can be designated a vexatious litigant, though this is rare, to stop malicious lawsuits and spare innocent, often little-guy, victims.
James Boyajian argued before Judge Dunn last year, on his father's behalf, that those were the hallmarks of Gennady Dolzhenko/Dolshenko/Dolhzenko's many cases.
In documents obtained by the Weekly, Gennady fought back by calling James Boyajian a "despicable, lying and indecent specimen" and a "loathsome and nasty person." Zina accused him of striking her with a stack of papers. The siblings threatened to report Boyajian to the Bar Association, the DA and even the police.
In a six-page letter, Gennady called the attorney "shockingly incompetent, unknowledgeable and absolutely illiterate in law." Beneath red capital letters that read: "THIS IS A WARNING," Gennady continued: "The games you play over phone demonstrate that you still did not get out of childhood."
But in October 2012, Dunn declared Gennady Dolzhenko a vexatious litigant, warning Gennady that a Sheriff's deputy would escort him out of court if he didn't stop arguing. Soon after, Judge Donna Goldstein, hearing the Studio Lodge case in Burbank, made the same declaration.
The California Vexatious Litigant List has 1,600 names on it — a rogue's gallery of outrageous, often predatory people. As a new member, if Gennady wants to sue, he first must post a $15,000 bond. Many of his victims say he won't risk the cash, if he has it.
It remains to be seen if this blow to her brother's activities will slow Zina's.
After losing to Rafaelov Day Care in the Labor Commissioner's office, she sued Shura Rafaelov anew in Superior Court. During a raucous hearing last year, Judge Elizabeth Lippitt stopped the proceedings several times because the histrionic Zina was "extremely disruptive."
"Plaintiff refused to follow basic rules of courtesy and courtroom procedure by consistently interrupting the court and her witness with leading questions," Lippitt wrote, noting that she reprimanded Zina for disobeying her order to stop speaking Russian to witnesses. The Weekly has found no judge in the records who has punished Zina beyond a simple reprimand.
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Zina didn't return after a lunch break, then appealed Lippitt's adverse ruling, stating, "Judge Lippitt's face expressed hatred and malice." An appellate panel rejected her effort.
After three years of angst — stemming from a day she did a good turn for an immigrant like herself — Rafaelov is no longer a defendant but hasn't found peace. Her friend, deli owner Igor Zadov, recently sold Dvin Market. For him, Zina is still very much a part of his life, not unlike an illness that cannot be cured. He's due in court in January — to again prove that he didn't shirk California wage laws.
"Four years have gone by and I'm still paying lawyers for this," Zadov says, almost lightly, as if he's the butt of a bad joke. "She won't stop. She's made it very clear to me, she'll never stop."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.