Jack's Big Payback

How an arrogant, overbearing landlord fought City Hall -- and won

Yetiv suspected otherwise. City inspectors from Link's office made repeated visits to Aspenwood and were hassling the apartment owner over the work he was having performed without permits. In the fall of 1994, Yetiv made several visits to the City Hall annex, where he first pleaded with Council to settle the dispute with Link. When it was apparent that Council wasn't inclined to take his side, he returned to launch windy, pompous attacks on Huey and the CURB ordinance, and to demand that Link -- whom he called a "liar" -- be fired.

Link responded with a damning assessment for Council that branded Yetiv a loose cannon who wouldn't follow the rules. In November of '94, councilmembers unanimously voted to sue Yetiv for doing repair work without permits.

Around that time, an attorney for Leonard and Betty Leath pulled Yetiv aside and gave him a rundown of his clients' troubles with the city. Yetiv was outraged by what he heard -- particularly the attempt by then-City Attorney Benjamin Hall to settle the case without receiving the mandatory City Council approval, which was generally seen, even by a few other councilmembers, as a thinly veiled attempt to shield Huey from further scrutiny of her involvement.

In late 1994, confident he could prove a pattern of deceit and bureaucratic meddling in the rights of property owners, Yetiv filed a countersuit. He charged the city with retaliating against him for his public comments, a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Yetiv also claimed the city's October 27, 1994 "raid" infringed on his Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure. His lawsuit sought more than $1 million in compensation for lost rents and expenses associated with delays caused by the city's withholding of building permits.

Yetiv also wanted an additional $1 million in punitive damages, but Jefferson tossed out that claim, presumably because Aspenwood is still standing. In a shrewd decision that in this litigious age is difficult to comprehend, and which may have lent Yetiv a credibility that money couldn't buy, the apartment owner made a decision not to seek damages for pain and suffering.

"The reality is," Yetiv said later, "if I thought I could have proved pain and suffering I would have gone after it. But there's no way the jury would have looked upon me as a victim."

That may be so, but Yetiv sure made a case that city officials -- including Huey -- were aggressively trying to make his life miserable.

In January 1995, state District Judge Harriet O'Neill signed an order compelling the city to grant Yetiv the permits he needed. That kept the peace until October of that year, when those permits expired. Despite continued promises from the city, Yetiv once again had to take the matter to court, where in April 1996, District Judge Don Wittig gave a verbal order to renew the permits. For the next several months, Yetiv continued his rehabilitation of Aspenwood while maintaining an uneasy coexistence with city inspectors.

Then on December 4, 1996, an inspector from Neighborhood Protection appeared at Aspenwood with orders to give the entire complex a thorough going over. Yetiv was naturally suspicious and, after asking a few questions, refused to allow the inspector onto his property. The next day, he filed a motion in district court, seeking to bar the city from inspecting Aspenwood without cause.

At a January 16 hearing on his motion, Yetiv asked the inspector what had brought her to Aspenwood that day.

"This was a general CURB ordinance complaint to investigate," she replied. "It was from Helen Huey's office."

After that testimony, Judge Dwight Jefferson granted Yetiv a temporary injunction to limit the access of city inspectors to Aspen-wood. But less than two weeks later, another inspector showed up at the complex, ostensibly in reference to a complaint about uncovered trash cans. An incredulous Yetiv again dragged the city to court, where the inspector admitted that an uncovered trash can was not a violation of the building code. Jefferson issued a second injunction barring city inspectors from entering the property without a specific complaint.

Incredibly, an inspector from the fire department came to Aspenwood on April 17, allegedly at the behest of the local civic association. The following day, Yetiv filed a motion seeking sanctions against the city. Jefferson found the city in contempt of court and levied a $1,000 fine for violating the injunction. In an attempt to put an end to the obvious harassment, the judge ordered city officials to petition his court for approval before making any more visits to Aspenwood.

He also put city attorneys on notice that they should prepare for trial.
"The Court is of the opinion that Yetiv has a probable right of recovery on the merits of this case," the judge wrote in his order.

Up to that point, it was obvious the city had underestimated Jack Yetiv. That's understandable. The law is largely a matter of common sense, but when it comes to arguing it, precision counts. Exacting testimony from witnesses and presenting evidence can be an adventurous experience for a seasoned attorney, let alone someone like Yetiv, who says he had never been inside a courtroom before this lawsuit.

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