Heather Foseid was tired of monotonous Wisconsin winters. So when her employer, Herbs, Etc., offered the saleswoman a transfer to Santa Fe, she was elated.
Foseid, 30, packed up and moved, renting her dream home on Canyon Road in June 2006. Her 200-year-old adobe cost $1,500 per month. Her nightmare began almost immediately. First, she says, the fridge broke. Then the stove broke. In October, Foseid says, she discovered a gas leak as she tried, unsuccessfully, to light the heater's pilot light. She called Public Service Company of New Mexico.
"They said that if I'd successfully lit it, I would've leveled the house," Foseid says.
Foseid tells her story gleefully, as if it's all a joke. She has reason to smile; on March 19, a jury found her landlords guilty of breaching the Uniform Owner Resident Relations Act in bad faith, and of "constructively evicting" Foseid.
Homeowners Roman and Adriana Tracz were living in New Jersey when they rented to Foseid and hired-Roman says unknowingly-an unlicensed handyman to fix the gas leak. Foseid says she contracted bronchitis while sitting in her home office, surrounded by five space heaters. The toilet stopped working around this time. The shower became, effectively, a urinal. This continued for weeks. Finally, Foseid called the NM Landlord/Tenant Hotline.
"Our office receives between 30 and 60 calls a day," Executive Director Susan Turetsky says via e-mail. "Property maintenance is a huge issue-as is the refund of the security deposit." The hotline informed Foseid of the "Resident's 7-Day Notice of Abatement or Termination" form, which says if the landlord doesn't fix the problem within a week, the tenant has a right to move out. Foseid signed the form and mailed it; the Traczes still didn't respond.
Foseid went to see Slate Stern, a lawyer who'd just resumed his practice after a harrowing ascent up Mt. Everest, in which two of his compatriots died climbing.
"I realized that Heather needed help," Stern says. "I've learned over the years that in helping others, we help ourselves…" Foseid didn't have a dime to pay Stern.
She sued the Traczes for more than $1,500 in rent.
Adriana is a social worker whose job includes helping low-income families with housing issues. She and Roman just had their first child. According to Roman, they are a middle-class family and tried to do their best.
"This was our dream house," Roman says via phone. "There was no reason in the world for us to want Heather to leave." Roman says they did everything they could to keep Foseid there.
The Traczes stayed in the house soon after Foseid left, and remain unconvinced the living conditions were as bad as she claims.
"We vigorously deny it was that cold in the house," Roman says. "The house is adobe. Sun shines from 9 to 6. Sometimes we shut off the space heaters because it was too hot."
The First Judicial District jury, however, sided with Foseid, awarding her $9,000 for lost commissions, moving expenses, winter clothes and food.
Joan West, a retired psychologist and juror in the case, says the decision to award Foseid was unanimous. "The Traczes didn't take being a landlord very seriously," she says.
They also awarded Foseid $15,000 in punitive damages because, juror West says, "we just felt like that wasn't the proper way to behave."
Add to that Stern's legal expenses totaling more than $60,000, and the payout could well top six figures. All over an unreturned rent deposit.
"The jury wanted to make an example of us," Roman says heatedly. "Did we behave maliciously? We're not financial predators. Santa Fe doesn't have to be protected from us."
He plans to appeal the case.