In 2003, Bruce Francis was driving a taxi late into the night and sleeping daytimes at the Baltic Inn on Sixth Avenue downtown. One day he lodged a complaint. "I told the managers, 'A lot of construction noise outside is keeping me awake, and by the way, it's awfully cold in my room in the early mornings.' " Management seemed responsive. They moved Francis across the street to the Simmons Hotel. (The hotels were owned by the same company.) But the room there was neither quieter nor warmer. After Francis complained again, management refused to accept his next rent payment. They wanted him to leave immediately.
"My friend Al DeBartolo said, 'Why don't you file a lawsuit against them? I'll help you,' " remembers Francis. He knew that DeBartolo, who is 79, often volunteered to help poor people fight legal battles. DeBartolo had owned several successful businesses in his earlier life, including a restaurant in Chicago and, during the 1970s, a riding stable in Vista. "I get along without money for the legal work," he claims.
DeBartolo tells me he got started by defending himself once in court. "The judge had the audacity," he says, "to give me that old line about having a fool for a client." DeBartolo estimates that since then he has given assistance to 30 or more people in various legal struggles, claiming to have won about half the cases. He says he studied law for three years "a long time ago in San Francisco," but he can't remember the name of the school. He has not passed a bar exam in any state.
Bruce Francis took DeBartolo up on his offer and filed a class-action lawsuit, even though he was the only named plaintiff. With his friend's advice, Francis came before the court as a "plaintiff in pro per." The term comes from the Latin "propria persona," or "on his own behalf." Judges do not like pro pers because they commonly lack knowledge of correct courtroom procedures and of how to write legal documents.
Before filing the lawsuit in 2004, Francis had called San Diego's Neighborhood Code Compliance Department. He wanted an inspector to look for violations of California's law requiring hotels to provide heat for their guests. "But they wouldn't come out," says Francis. "Then, months later, in the middle of our lawsuit, they suddenly showed up. Shortly afterward workers started putting new heating equipment in the hotels."
From then on the hotels would have heat, but Francis was not satisfied. "Hundreds of people, maybe, had lived in those hotels without heat," says Francis. "I knew the current ones, but they wouldn't come forward for fear of the same thing that happened to me. And the hotels' big-time attorneys hit us with every trick in the book. Finally, the judge dismissed the class action because we couldn't name all the parties to the suit." Francis ended up as a lone plaintiff and received a $2500 settlement that he split with his advisor. "I told the judge," he says, "that I felt bad for Al [DeBartolo] because he put in probably $20,000 in time, copying, and secretarial pay to help people out, and he gets only $1250. Afterward I had to go up to Portland for some rest, I was so exhausted."
As though it were his fate, Francis ended up last year in another heatless building, this time working as a night clerk in the Reiss Hotel on First Avenue. On February 1, 2007, a night when the cold caused residents to complain more than usual, he fired off a letter to the hotel's owner, John Caparell. He asked for heat. "Also," he wrote, "please remove the wood shims [holding the windows open] in the bathrooms and please install windows in the shower rooms instead of these open holes in the upper walls." To use the common bathrooms and showers, residents have to walk down cold and drafty hallways. Francis tells me, "We had been told that when guests complain about heat, give them another blanket. Or tell them the building is too old for heat. Amazingly, that would work."
Francis was not anxious to get into another protracted fight, and he might not have written to Caparell except for one disturbing event. On January 23, after an especially cold night, Bryant Kemp, a man in his 60s who had a flulike illness, died in the hotel. Several other residents suffered from a similar illness at the same time. Nobody seems to know the exact causes of Kemp's death, but Francis emphasizes that being cold could not have helped him.
According to Francis, Caparell did not take the request for heat well. The day after receiving the letter, he came to the Reiss in the early morning. Caparell demanded to know why Francis couldn't have just called him. Why did he need to write a letter? On February 7 Caparell came back to the hotel. Sometime that same day, Caparell wrote Francis a "Notice of Termination of Employment for Cause." The cause cited was that once in January "you failed to properly fill out your cash reports as required." Caparell wrote that he then brought the failure to Francis's attention. "[Today], I again found your work documentation to be substandard...."
Francis insists there was nothing wrong with his cash reporting. And he says that Caparell has yet to put heat in the Reiss. According to Francis, the building doesn't have radiators, furnaces, or any other kind of heating mechanisms. Residents who try to use space heaters cause electrical shorts.
In late February, Francis wrote to San Diego's Neighborhood Code Compliance Department to ask them to inspect the Reiss. The letter came on the heels of eight earlier complaints sent to the department by the hotel's residents. As a follow-up, Francis called on March 1. He tells me that Sheri Carr, the department's deputy director, promised to send someone out the next week. "Ten days later," says Francis, "I got a call from someone in the office of Marcela Escobar-Eck [director of San Diego's Development Services Department] telling me that Code Compliance had gone out to the Reiss in mid-February and found everything to be fine."
When I call, Sheri Carr first says that Code Compliance is not required to inspect hotels that were built prior to the enactment of San Diego's Uniform Building Code in the 1920s. She estimates that the Reiss was built sometime around 1912. Nevertheless, Carr tells me, she went to the hotel in mid-February. "The owner showed me wall heaters in the rooms," she says.
"Maybe Caparell put on a dog and pony show for her," says Al DeBartolo. Recently, to get to the bottom of it, I went to the hotel and asked to see a vacant room I might rent. The room had a microwave oven and a mini-refrigerator. But no heater or heating vent.
On April 9, with the help of Francis and DeBartolo, current Reiss Hotel resident Rita Curry filed a class-action lawsuit against John Caparell and his mother, Voula Caparell, two known partners in a company called San Diego Progressive Urban Development. Ossie Coley and Peter Nadreau, former residents of the Reiss, are joining Curry in the action. This time DeBartolo and Francis want to make it impossible for the court to throw out the suit because it names an insufficient number of plaintiffs. The suit alleges that company owners illegally and "intentionally withheld...heat from all guests and tenants of the Reiss Hotel for a period of at least four years...." In addition, it charges that they "routinely refuse and threaten to refuse rent payments from tenants, who are otherwise current on their rent, for the primary purpose of depriving these tenants of the full rights of tenancy, specifically the tenants' rights to challenge the evictions in court." The plaintiffs are asking the court to award them attorney fees and damages for all people who have lived at the Reiss over the past four years.
By phone John Caparell tells me that Francis "has done this kind of thing before. It's basically extortion," he says, by which he means "the use of unmerited threats to obtain money." I ask Caparell, who is an attorney, whether his hotel has heat. "I don't comment on matters that are currently being litigated," he says.
The day after Francis served Caparell notice of the lawsuit, Rita Curry tells me, she had her rent payment rejected. She was being evicted. "The manager told me, 'John [Caparell] is not happy with you,' " says Curry. "But it was cold here this winter. I asked for another blanket, but they said they couldn't give me one." When Curry told Reiss manager Art Mendoza that she had a legal right to stay, he called the police. He convinced them that hotels are permitted to refuse future business with their guests. The police then gave Curry an hour to pack her things and leave.
But Curry called Francis, who called police headquarters. "I told the officer in charge that Mendoza had hoodwinked her officers," he says. "Once tenants have rented rooms for 31 days or more, they have the same rights as any regular renter. They have the right to challenge their eviction in court. And I told the officer I didn't want to see the City charged in the lawsuit too." Within the hour, he claims, the police came back and told Curry she had the right to stay.
I speak with the two other plaintiffs as well. Peter Nadreau lived at the Reiss during December and January, when he had a job. He tells me that he is among a group of elderly and occasionally homeless people who, depending on their income, go in and out of residential hotels. "If people start getting something like [federally funded Supplemental Security Income], they can stay indefinitely," he says. Not long ago Nadreau quit his job and now sleeps in a friend's storage facility.
Ossie Coley came to San Diego from Northern California last summer. Before that he lived in Washington, D.C., where he participated in another lawsuit over lack of hotel heat. "The Georgetown University Law Center helped us with that one," he says. "The hotel got hit with 30 different violations." Coley now has a new job and has rented an apartment.
"Wasn't it," I ask, "a lot colder in Washington?"
"Oh, yes," says Coley. "But it was tremendously cold in the Reiss this past winter."