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Notorious Sonoma County Landlord/Tenant Case Finally Comes to a Close After 4 1/2 Years

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According to a Press Democrat article dated April 8, 2010, Gwen Smith seemed like the perfect tenant. The 53-year-old single mother was articulate and bright, had good references and talked about using her law degree to help crime victims and other women raising children on their own.

But what Landlord Connie Cook didn't know when she handed over the keys to her converted barn in 2009 was that she was opening her doors to trouble.

According to court records, Gwen Smith runs a "scam pattern". "She seeks a kind landlord, moves in and never intends to pay anything but the first month's rent." Gwendolyn Smith, has eviction cases against her in at least three states that we know about. She is an accused serial squatter who has frustrated landlords using a tactic of legal delays afforded to her by California's tenant friendly legal protections.

Gwen Smith's tactics were found to be "intentional, malicious, and outrageous" by retired Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil.

Cook vs. Smith Trial Court Case: SCV-247027 / Court of Appeal Case: A130939

Over a decade ago, Connie Cook purchased a beautiful property in Sonoma County with a lovely home, garden and a barn converted to living quarters. She planned to enjoy her retirement in this bucolic setting, collecting her Social Security and supplementing her income with the rental income.

The downstairs apartment in a converted barn rented easily to a new tenant. Then on February 29, 2009, Connie rented the upstairs unit to Gwendolyn Smith and her teen-aged son. Everything was proceeding according to her plans - until Smith stopped paying her rent.

Trial Proceeds Against Gwendolyn Smith

Cook filed an unlawful detainer in or around July 2009. After a substantial amount of procedural delays based on the Defendant filing various motions, including, but not limited to, four motions to quash, two writs to the appellate court, one appeal to the appellate court, one petition to the California Supreme Court, and one motion to change venue, the matter finally went to trial on October 27, 2010, over one year later.

At the day of the hearing, Smith tried to have the date continued. When she failed to convince the judge for a delay, she left the courtroom but later returned. On the third day of trail, Smith again asked for a continuance, but the judge refused. Then she claimed the judge would be prejudicial in this case.

The case continued, sometimes with Smith in the courtroom and sometimes without her. As closing arguments came to a close, Smith noted she had an emergency, thanked the court and left. She told the judge, "I know that I have preserved my objections on appeal and that what the Court has done today is reversible error." Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Tansil then stated that Smith was "again, abandoning the court."

The court ruled in favor of Cook and entered a judgment against Smith for all back due rent and damages in the amount of $49,635.96, including punitive damages of $33,090.64. The judgment was entered on Nov. 22, 2010.

The war wasn't over for Gwendolyn Smith!

Smith Pursues Argument of Prejudice in Appellate Court

During the trial, Smith had asserted judicial bias against Judge Tansil on several occasions. She took her argument to the appellate court, which ruled that it was not persuaded by Smith's argument that the trial proceedings were tainted by judicial bias.

The court noted that Smith hadn't filed a statutory disqualification motion against Judge Tansil in this action. Consequently, she forfeited any arguments that either Judge Tansil was statutorily disqualified, or that Judge Tansil was statutorily precluded from accepting a trial assignment of this case because Smith had previously disqualified the judge in another case. Furthermore, a review of the record showed that there was nothing improper about Judge Tansil's attempts to stop Smith from talking at certain portions of the proceedings. Nor did the appellate court see anything improper about Judge Tansil's objections or comments addressing the inappropriate manner in which Smith framed her questions to witnesses.

After four years, he battle between Cook and Smith finally ended. Cook may have been vindicated in court, but in reality this war cost Cook her dream house!

Landlords Need to Check Prospective Tenants' Background

Constance Cook admits that she didn't run a background check on Gwendolyn Smith in order to save her some money. In the long run, Cook lost more than the cost of a thorough credit report. If you're thinking of renting property check your prospective tenant's credit report for:

  1. Late or delinquent in paying rent and other bills.
  2. Convictions of a crime.
  3. Past history of evictions.
  4. Involvement in lawsuits.
  5. Proof the person is financially active enough to afford to rent from you.
Make sure you have interested parties complete this Consent to Background Check form. You can get a credit report from Equifax. If you don't have a rental application, you may want to download this Residential Rental Application form from Nolo.

Gwendolyn Smith's last know location is Portland, Oregon and she uses aliases. Do your homework and make sure that you only rent to reputable individuals.

The Law Offices of James V. Sansone is located in Santa Rosa, California and litigates numerous landlord tenant disputes including evictions, contract and lease disputes, evictions after foreclosure, and problem tenants, throughout Sonoma County, Mendocino County, and Lake County, including Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Sonoma, Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Windsor, Bodega Bay, Ukiah, Willits, Clearlake, Lakeport, and Kelseyville.

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