Metro Denver tenant loses suit against her landlord over conditions at her apartment

She plans to appeal, saying, “They can’t just do this to people because they don’t have money.”

The Golden Nugget Apartments in Englewood on May 22, 2019. (DonnaBryson/Denverite)

The Golden Nugget Apartments in Englewood on May 22, 2019. (DonnaBryson/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Amber Celaya accused a big property management company of failing to provide hot water or heat at her apartment building for more than a week and letting bed bugs infest her home.

The big company won in court. The waitress plans to appeal.

An Arapahoe County magistrate ruled last month in favor of SKM Management Co., which has a portfolio of more than 800 apartments in a half dozen metro Denver complexes. Magistrate Kathleen Janski said the company provides housing for people who are “down on their luck.” Janski said that Celaya had no justification for breaking her lease on an apartment in the Golden Nugget building at 291 West Belleview Avenue in Englewood.

Jack Metzel, SKM’s chief operating officer, said Tuesday that Janski’s ruling confirmed his company’s position from the start that there were “no merits on her side of the case.”

Celaya, who left the Golden Nugget in late 2018, has asked Janski to consider amending her judgment. If that fails, Celaya said in an interview Tuesday that she would appeal to a higher court and pursue appeals until she is successful. She said that even if she does not prevail, she hopes SKM will treat other tenants better to avoid being taken to court.

“They can’t just do this to people because they don’t have money,” Celaya said. She said she felt she was treated during the legal process as “a bad person who skipped out on the rent.

“That’s not what happened.”

Low-income tenants rarely have legal representation in disputes with landlords. But the advocacy group 9to5 had connected Celaya to a lawyer who is not charging her.

Celaya’s lawyer, Jason Legg, said Tuesday that he was concerned that the magistrate’s ruling would result in other people concluding they had no “power or recourse when they’re being exploited.”

“She’s a brave person,” Legg said of Celaya.

The single mother of a young son was working in a downtown Denver restaurant when she started her suit last year.

She’s now furloughed and collecting unemployment because of the coronavirus’s impact on the economy. She and her son have been living in Fifty Eight Hundred, a below-market apartment complex on Alameda developed by Lakewood’s housing authority.

In her suit seeking unspecified damages, Celaya accused SKM of breach of contract for three reasons: depriving her family of the ability enjoy their home, taking unreasonably long to address problems, and violating a state law requiring landlords to provide safe and healthy homes to tenants. Celaya also accused SKM of defrauding her by not telling her about bed bug problems before she signed her lease and of keeping her $300 security deposit unlawfully.

In her 16-page opinion, Janski ruled in SKM’s favor on all five accusations. Janski did, though, reject the $640 charge that SKM said Celaya owed to cover what it said were advertising and other expenses of finding a new tenant after she left before her lease ended last June. The re-letting fee was “unreasonably large for the expected loss,” Janski ruled.

SKM had countersued. Janski ordered Celaya to pay the two months’ rent, a total of $1,600, that SKM demanded plus a $75 cleaning fee. SKM was instructed to put the $300 deposit it retained against what teh judge ruled Celaya owed.

Problems began almost as soon as Celaya signed her Golden Nugget lease on July 14, 2018.

She went on a vacation and returned two weeks later to find her apartment was flooded because of a sewer problem. Managers arranged another Golden Nugget apartment for her. On Oct. 4, 2018 Celaya and other tenants smelled gas and saw fire trucks arrive. The heat and water went off that day and Celaya was told the problem was the boiler, which was not repaired for 12 days, during which time SKM offered Celaya neither a hotel room nor a break on her rent. Then came the bed bugs. Celaya gave notice the next month that she was terminating her lease because of the problems.

Janski said SKM ran into problems beyond its control in repairing the boiler, including an inability to find a plumber at the start of the Columbus Day weekend. She also said SKM sought professional help to eradicate bed bugs and that some tenants exacerbated the infestation.

“SKM took efforts to prevent tenants from bringing discarded items from the dumpsters back into the complex by installing a security camera to identify the offenders who were dumpster diving and returning discarded items back into the complex,” Janski wrote.

In her ruling, she repeatedly remarked on what she saw as the credibility of SKM’s witnesses, who included Metzel. Janski heard witnesses during three days of hearings between late October of 2019 and early this January.

Celaya said she felt Janski “was looking down on me the whole time.”

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