They became, in the eyes of 68-year-old Venera Mendoza-Baez, the housemates from hell.
After retiring as a preschool teacher, she decided two years ago to rent out one of the five bedrooms in her Van Nuys home to help pay the $2,000 rent. An Armenian who speaks Russian, Mendoza-Baez placed an ad in Russian L.A.
She felt a kinship for two middle-aged Russian immigrants who responded to her ad, Gennady and his sister, Zina, because they had arrived “from Russia a week ago, they don't know anybody, they don't speak English.” Mendoza-Baez took them in as housemates, explaining, “You know how we all try to help each other.”
Mendoza-Baez was unaware of an L.A. Weekly cover story, “How a Brother and Sister Took L.A.'s Russian Immigrant Community on a Wild Ride,” published in October 2013. The paper reported that the duo arrived in the United States in 2004 from Kyrgyzstan, on a “diversity immigrant visa,” and had been operating since 2005 under a series of different names while filing more than 40 lawsuits against people and entities ranging from neighborhood bakers and tailors to the DMV.
As the Weekly reported, the siblings would appear at the small shops of fellow Russian speakers and explain that they desperately needed work, even a few hours sweeping up. Then, after doing the odd jobs for a while, the pair would file complaints with the California Labor Commissioner seeking back pay and statutory penalties from the shopkeepers for such alleged wrongdoing as failure to pay overtime.
Like the shopkeepers whose stories were told in the earlier Weekly investigation, Mendoza-Baez took the couple's story, that they were penniless and had just arrived in America, at face value. She required no rental agreement of them. She didn't even know their last names. She bought two new twin beds and gave them a dresser, a room and a bathroom across the hall. They paid her $100 for the first week, and in July 2014 started paying $675 a month.
According to Mendoza-Baez, Zina had said she was a caretaker, but the duo rarely left the house. She began to worry that neither had a job. “All day they are sleeping,” she recalls. “All night they were going back and forth to the bathroom. They go to bathroom 20 times. Every single night.”
In October 2014, Mendoza-Baez says, she demanded that they sign a contract and divulge their last names. They refused, she says, so she called the police — only to learn she needed a lawyer to evict them.
In a court document filed in February, when she successfully sought a restraining order against her tenants, Mendoza-Baez declared that Zina “threatened me that she will file 30 cases against me and will put me in jail for the rest of my life. She said that she will create a 'slip-and-fall' case, pretending that she will fall and hurt herself.
“I am afraid for my life because after the court order to evict them, their threats and harassment escalated,” Mendoza-Baez wrote. “They threatened to put an end to the existence of my family.”
Mendoza-Baez recounts one bizarre incident in a letter submitted in the restraining-order case: “I told [her] that she was supposed to keep her bathroom clean, and if not, at least she needs to keep [the door] closed, so that the bad smell will not penetrate into the whole house. She said that she intentionally will open it every time so that we could smell their urine. Then she slapped the door into my face.”
When Mendoza-Baez's 14-year-old granddaughter stepped out to see about the commotion, according to the statement, Zina “started calling her names, like 'little bitch, the same as your grandmother.'”
The granddaughter Googled the names of Zina and Gennady and discovered L.A. Weekly's 2013 investigation into the lawsuits filed by the siblings, whose last name is Dolzhenko, against those who tried to help them.
The stress wore on Mendoza-Baez, who wrote in restraining order documents, “I acquired pre-stroke condition: chest pain, blurry vision, anxiety, stress.”
Her son offered to pay the duo $3,000 to move out, she says, but they wanted more. So she hired an eviction attorney. In April, two sheriff's deputies showed up at Zina and Gennady's bedroom door. “This is not the right room!” Zina shouted from behind the door, according to Mendoza-Baez. “We are not the right people!”
Mark Volper, a Russian native who runs California Worker Advocates and has helped employers allegedly targeted by the Dolzhenkos, says, “This is very typical racket. It's not one-time thing, it's way of life. In Russia, this is way of living.”
In October, the Dolzhenkos sued the Weekly for libel and invasion of privacy, alleging its article painted “a caricature of plaintiffs [sic] completely ruin plaintiff's reputation and expose the plaintiffs to hatred, contempt, ridicule, disgrace, obloquy and cause the plaintiffs to be shunned or avoided, or tend to injure the plaintiffs in their occupation.” The suit named as co-defendants more than 20 people named in the story, including Volper, as well as some who declined to comment but appeared in court documents cited in the story.
In December, Judge Daniel J. Buckley ruled that Gennady Dolzhenko, whom the courts in 2012 declared a “vexatious litigant” (meaning he must get permission from a judge to file suit), could not sue the shopkeepers in the Weekly story, or the newspaper. But the case is going forward with Zina as the plaintiff.
Many of the defendants in these suits can't afford an attorney. But they now have on their side one of the nation's top law firms, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which heard about the targeting of small business owners and decided to represent them pro bono. According to Jessie Kornberg, CEO of the nonprofit legal aid group Bet Tzedek, which facilitated the deal, Gibson, Dunn will represent “as many as five of the small businesses or individual defendants.”
Gibson, Dunn did not return the Weekly's phone call.
Gennady Dolzhenko didn't respond to the Weekly's email requesting an interview. Attorney Ronald Tym emailed the Weekly on the duo's behalf last year, saying, “In my opinion they are well-educated honest people and they have documentation to show that those who made defamatory statements about them for the article are the ones with things to hide.”
Reached by phone last week, Tym said he had met the Dolzhenkos as they fought an earlier eviction in Santa Monica Superior Court in November 2013: “They were upset in front of the judge. It seemed unfair to me. And I volunteered to help them out.”
Tym told the Weekly he did not know Gennady was a vexatious litigant, or that the brother and sister had sued more than 40 small business owners and landlords.
Tym adds, “There seems to be a gap between my perception of them and these other lawsuits that are going on. I wouldn't normally volunteer my time for someone I didn't think was genuine.”