Department 94 is unlike any other courtroom in Los Angeles. Most courts are quiet, orderly affairs. Parties show up on time and speak when spoken to. Department 94 is different — one part game show, one part DMV on a Monday morning.
Located on the seventh floor of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown L.A., the chamber is the entry point for every single eviction case in the city.
Rents in Los Angeles have climbed by 25 percent since 2000, according to a UCLA study, while households' median incomes have actually declined. That's left L.A. among the least (if not the very least) affordable cities in which to live in the United States. According to Zillow, a person making the metro area's median income of $59,000 must pay 48 percent of his or her paycheck to cover median rent, which is currently an eye-popping $2,392.
With margins like that, it's easy to fall behind. Some 64,000 to 73,000 people are evicted in L.A. each year — a population equal to that of Redondo Beach. But before the sheriff shows up at their door with a padlock, they're called here, to “unlawful detainer” (legalese for eviction) court. Every day, more than 50 cases move through Department 94.
Each morning begins with a long monologue by Commissioner Robert Harrison — he's not a judge, but he isn't entirely un-judgelike, a kindly sort who looks a bit like Daniel Stern in a graying Abraham Lincoln beard — explaining the rules of the court.
“No live or dead insects please,” Harrison calls out with a broad smile. “Please dispose of them in the restroom.”
A Spanish translator stands in the middle of the room, talking under him. All the while people file in and out; the bailiff orders people to sit down, take off their hats and turn off their cellphones; and lawyers wander in search of their clients. Many attorneys represent four, five, six clients a day, and they've often never even met before today.
After explaining the rules, the commissioner reads the names of the property owners and tenants in each case. The parties then go up two flights to the court's cafeteria, where they're encouraged to hammer out a settlement and keep things from going to trial.
If Department 94 is the cattle call, the cafeteria is the meat market. Tenants and landlords sit awkwardly while lawyers shuttle up and down the escalators and elevators between multiple clients, often missing one another by minutes.
The lawyers all know one another — they've been telling bad jokes and bickering for years.
For example: Gary Hoffman, a patrician-looking landlord's attorney who has been in the business for three decades, timidly approaches Deepika Sharma, a tenant's attorney with Public Counsel, a pro bono firm. He smiles. She scowls.
“Is it yes or no, Gary?” she says.
He hesitates, then says, “It's close.”
“I'm not taking anything less than what I gave you” earlier, she says. Hoffman slinks away.
“He asked me twice if my softer co-worker is coming in,” Sharma says when Hoffman is out of earshot. “I said, 'No, you have me.'?”
“I hate seeing her,” Hoffman says later. “She doesn't know what negotiation means.”
In the end, most cases settle for either a “pay-and-stay,” where the tenant pays the back rent, often with some sort of payment plan, or a “no-dough-and-go,” where the tenant is given, say, 30 days to leave, and all back rent is forgiven.
“In today's environment, '30 and a waiver' is wonderful,” says Stephany Yablow, one of the landlord attorneys. “Sixty and a waiver is fine, too.”
Department 94, nearly all of the gray-haired landlords' attorneys agree, is not what it used to be. A new crop of attorneys has arrived on scene over the last decade to defend tenants. They're aggressive. They use every trick in the book to slow down cases, draining money from landlords, forcing them into less favorable settlements.
The landlords sometimes are forced to pay tenants a move-out fee.
“How do you think it is for us, to try and explain that to our clients?” Hoffman asks incredulously. “?'The court system has gone crazy.' That's what I say to them.”
It's a new day for landlords trying to evict tenants, and many of them blame one man in all of the sprawling city: Daniel Bramzon.
Among eviction attorneys, Danny Bramzon's courtroom swagger is legendary. He loves to trash-talk the opposition: “I can't wait to fucking grill [your client] on the stand, I'm gonna take so much pleasure in it,” or “You're going to be so embarrassed when you lose this case.”
Ray Kermani, one of the few younger landlord attorneys on the scene, says Bramzon once said to him something to the effect of, “Why don't we step outside?”
“He likes to get in people's heads and likes to say things like that,” Kermani says. “It was very unprofessional.”
“He's very slimy,” agrees Kermani's partner, Mohamad Ahmad. “He'll call me a lying piece of shit.” Although, Ahmad allows, “Since he had a child, he's kind of calmed down.”
“If we're so wrong, why do we win so many cases?” Bramzon asks, sitting in the bar at downtown's Wokcano on a Tuesday evening. He's drinking an extra-dirty martini with extra olives, and every so often he pulls out a small canister of Binaca mouth spray from his breast pocket and takes a spritz. “Why do we win more cases than any nonprofit organization? Why do we obtain more money than any nonprofit organization? Why are we the most feared nonprofit organization?!”
In place of a necktie, Bramzon wears a large necklace with a ceramic, M-shaped medallion, depicting a serpent and a pyramid, a traditional icon of pre-Columbian Mexico. Bramzon is from Miami, but his dad is from Mexico, and Danny lived there for a few years as a kid. His mother is Jewish and from Philadelphia — “Philly,” Bramzon says. There are times he uses his Philly accent and times he uses his Mexican accent. Underneath his shirt, Bramzon wears a gold Star of David.
He's reluctant to talk about the dichotomy of the Mexican heritage worn over his shirt, the Jewish heritage worn underneath. He says only: “I identify with all my heritage.”
Unlike most of the other nonprofit attorneys, Bramzon started out in a private law firm. In 2005, he was working at the powerhouse Century City law firm Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil and Shapiro, now a politically connected firm with a somewhat different mix of partner names. Bramzon was 27 and, because he often worked late, he grew friendly with the mostly Hispanic cleaning crew.
One night, one of the cleaning ladies came up to him, holding a piece of paper in her hands.
“Señor Danny,” she said, handing him the paper. It was an eviction lawsuit filing.
Bramzon looked into it, researched the case law and helped her reach a fair settlement with her landlord. Less than a month later, the woman's cousin came to him. She, too, was being evicted.
“I went to the property on Beverly and Normandie,” Bramzon recalls. “There was a couple of inches of water in this person's living room. And I swear, there's a bed in the middle of the living room with a girl who must have been 5 or 6 at the time, on a breathing machine. She had asthma. The landlord was refusing to fix the ceiling.”
By the time he was finished, the mother had been paid $10,000 to move out, and Bramzon had found his calling.
In his Westwood living room, he started Basta — Spanish for “Stop!” or “That's enough!” — a nonprofit law firm devoted exclusively to low-income tenants.
Basta wasn't the first firm of its kind. A couple years earlier, a lawyer named Elena Popp, who had been evicted with her family at the age of 8, left her longtime job at Legal Aid Foundation Los Angeles to found the Eviction Defense Network (EDN) with her then-husband.
At the time, some 95 percent of tenants getting evicted either didn't show up to court or went without representation. Those who didn't show defaulted. The others, in the words of Popp, “got screwed.” They were forced into settlements hardly better than the initial judgments against them. Trials were short.
Popp's firm deviated from the model of Legal Aid, which receives public funding and represents clients pro bono. Both EDN and Basta are “low bono” — that is, they charge clients a little bit of money, often on a sliding scale, and take a percentage of the settlement, if there is any.
“At EDN, we all come from the nonprofit world,” Popp says. “Basta comes from the for-profit world and is better at the business part of the equation.”
Indeed, Basta's business is booming, as Bramzon himself is proud to admit. It has just hired a 14th lawyer, and it has offices in the eviction hot spots of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Lancaster. In 2012, the firm reported $1.5 million in revenue. This year, according to Bramzon, it will surpass $2 million. According to publicly available tax forms, Bramzon himself made only $30,000 from his work at Basta in 2012. On the side, he has a small private practice, which he says “pays the bills.”
The landlords and their attorneys bristle at the sheer brazenness of Basta's business model.
While many defense lawyers, like Popp, seek out a settlement with the landlords' attorneys that gives their clients another month or two to move out and forgiveness of back rent (a “no-dough-and-go”), Basta lawyers, by most accounts, refuse to settle unless the landlord pays the tenant some money, of which Basta takes its 30 percent cut.
Mohamad Ahmad recalls one interaction between him and Basta attorney Ned Harris.
“Ned has told me that straight up: 'You either pay us $2,000 on this case, or we won't settle,” Ahmad says. He claims, “If I say, 'Here's my settlement offer: one year free rent to your client, or he leaves in two weeks and I pay $3,000,' [Basta] takes the money. Because they get a piece.”
Other lawyers tell similar stories, although Bramzon insists that the decision to accept or reject a settlement offer is Basta's clients' alone.
“It's not just defending the downtrodden,” says Dennis Block, whose firm represents landlords in more eviction cases than any other in L.A. “It's just such a crock. It's a matter of trying to move money out of the landlords' pockets to the law firm's pockets.”
Bramzon is amused by this. He wonders if the landlords find it easier to accept paying him, a lawyer, rather than their own impoverished tenants.
“They can't conceptualize money going to poor people,” he laughs. “Everyone says, 'Oh my gosh, Basta, you're asking for money!' We're not keeping it, fools! I'm fucking Robin Hood!”
Most unlawful-detainer cases arise when the tenant, for whatever reason, can't pay rent. Maybe they lose their job, or get sick, or their disability checks run out. Others face eviction for less savory reasons.
But these are by no means all the cases — especially now that the economy is improving. Often, in quickly gentrifying areas such as Echo Park and Highland Park, a building is bought by a new landlord, who wants to upgrade the property and rent it out to wealthier, higher-paying tenants.
All apartment buildings in Los Angeles built before a cutoff date of Oct. 1, 1978, are subject to the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance. Once a tenant moves into one of these older, rent-stabilized units, the landlord is allowed to raise the rent by 3 to 8 percent per year, depending on that year's Consumer Price Index, which tracks inflation.
But when an apartment is vacated, building owners can charge the next tenant whatever the market will bear. So some landlords find ways to evict tenants.
“In a good economy, most of the cases we get are bogus allegations that tenants [paying below market rate] are violating leases,” Elena Popp says.
A lot of tenants, not knowing any better, simply move out. Those who resist may receive a list of draconian rules from the landlord. Maybe the building manager let certain things slide, allowing late rent checks or a house cat that technically wasn't permitted. The landlord can begin strictly enforcing the rules and evicting those who don't comply.
But, in fact, most of these moves are technically against the law. Few tenants realize this, unless they hire a lawyer.
Back in the mid-2000s, if tenants didn't like the settlement offers from their landlords, they could ask for “bench trials” — no-jury trials decided by Superior Court judges.
Bramzon recalls winning close to half of his bench trials in Basta's early years. But he sensed that the judges were in a rush and found them boring. Then he looked over to the box with 12 empty jury chairs — and had an epiphany.
He'd never litigated before a jury, having only seen what it might be like on TV news and dramas. Judges, he reasoned, were pretty wealthy. They owned homes and probably hadn't rented since college. Juries, however, would include a few tenants. Maybe juries would better relate to his clients.
According to Bramzon, when he went down to the filing window to demand a jury trial — which is everyone's right under the California Constitution — the clerk on the other side of the glass gave him an annoyed rebuke.
“Sorry, sir, you can't do a jury trial for an eviction.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We can't take these.”
But that wasn't true. Eventually he convinced someone to take it. And Department 94 hasn't been the same since.
“In one of the first cases,” Bramzon recalls, “the judge says, 'OK Danny, call your first witness. I said, 'Your honor, wait, I filed a jury demand.' The judge was shocked. Opposing counsel thought it was outrageous. 'Why do you need a jury trial? It's an eviction case!'?”
Bramzon was right. Juries were far more sympathetic to his clients than judges had been. By his own estimate, his win percentage shot up to 90 percent.
Elena Popp, too, had asked for jury trials, though far more selectively. They were hard to prepare for, and a day spent in trial meant you couldn't shepherd five other cases through settlement negotiations.
Basta began routinely demanding jury trials for every case, partly for leverage in negotiations. Now, all the nonprofits in Los Angeles County representing poor tenants facing eviction do the same.
“Everyone copies Basta,” Bramzon brags, pointing out: “We do more jury trials than EDN and Public Counsel put together.” Bramzon estimates that his 14 lawyers each conduct 20 to 25 jury trials a year, for a total approaching 300 trials.
So the court system now is clogged with dozens of eviction cases waiting for trials. Budget cuts that closed numerous courthouses have made things worse. Landlords often have to wait four to six months for their eviction cases to go to trial.
All the while, under the law, their tenant gets to live in the apartment rent-free.
Owners stuck with a nonpaying tenant face a difficult choice: Wait for a jury trial, which means losing months of rent and hiring an attorney, or simply give Basta what it wants — a few thousand bucks.
“It's cheaper to settle,” Gary Hoffman says. “That's [Bramzon's] niche. That's what he discovered. That's where his genius is. He saw this, he developed it, he made it happen.”
But Basta, by many accounts, takes the tactic a step further, using numerous tricks to extend hearings and delay trials, handing the tenant weeks or months to live rent-free, a sort of scorched-earth tactic. Lawyers show up in Department 94 in the morning and mysteriously disappear. Or a Basta lawyer will show up and demand a jury trial, and if the commissioner tries to send it to an eviction court, the lawyer will say that he or she isn't “trial counsel.”
“It's become a game,” landlord's attorney Stephany Yablow says. “You're constantly chasing after them. And you're finally in front of a judge … and whatever [tenant's] lawyer is up in front of the court is not 'trial counsel.' … And it's all a lie because they're all down the hall.”
“They're so compulsive in their lies,” Mohamad Ahmad says. “It's kind of second nature to them.”
But Basta doesn't always win. One client, Sagario Lopez, was renting a 600-square-foot apartment near MacArthur Park. She worked as a cook in a lunch truck, and at various times had five or six other family members in her tiny place — although her rental agreement allowed for only five total occupants.
This year, the landlord found out about her extra occupant and raised her rent $100 under the law. Her food-truck job pays very little, so she hired Basta, claiming that no extra roommates had moved in — and that her place was infested with bed bugs and cockroaches.
Tenants can tap into technicalities: if their landlord didn't properly maintain the unit, if a landlord hasn't registered his building properly, if the owner failed to pay the correct fees.
“It is a rare situation where we cannot find a defense for our tenant,” Bramzon says. But Lopez did lose, at Chatsworth Superior Court — not generally a tenant-friendly place, where the jury wasn't convinced that her bug problem was the landlord's responsibility.
Judges themselves sometimes catch on and get angry. A few weeks ago, a Basta lawyer claimed not to know about a settlement agreement. That could be true — Basta lawyers sometime juggle numerous cases. But it also may have been a fib, a delay tactic.
“We've been parked on this case since June!” the judge barked. “That is ridiculous. That is the okie doke. We don't do that around here.”
But most of the time, especially in Department 94, Bramzon and his team get away with it.
“I agree it's ticky-tack,” Basta attorney Ned Harris says. “But that's what the law says. Is it fair? Well, is it fair when a 22-year-old tenant who gets sick gets evicted?”
Ahmad says: “Basta, they run that courthouse, basically.”
It's all a matter of which player is most adept at tapping the obscure rules and weak spots in the justice system. For quite a while now, Danny Bramzon, the Robin Hood of evictions, has been that player.