In May 2015, Bernard Vinluan’s job at Willmark Communities became more secret agent than apartment leasing agent. Vinluan waited for the employees to clock out of the office before he made his move.
He snuck into his coworker Rita Ruiz’s office and fumbled through the collections administrator’s desk drawers. He grabbed documents and invoices and took them down the hall to his office. Vinluan and his boss Randy Williams removed the metal filing cabinet from Ruiz’s office and replaced it with a similar cabinet.
The covert operations occurred at the headquarters of Willmark Communities in Scripps Ranch, just east of Interstate 15 off the Mira Mesa Boulevard exit. Willmark owns and operates nine large apartment complexes in San Diego County, and several other properties out of state.
The spying began days after the company learned that a group of tenants had filed a class-action lawsuit. According to the group’s attorney, the number of plaintiffs now stands at 3000 people.
In the complaint, tenants claim that Willmark pocketed their security deposits. And when asked about the charges, the company refused to provide proper invoices and tried to hide overcharges. The class-action lawsuit also alleges that general manager Williams and owner Mark Schmidt encouraged employees to lie and show doctored photos on the witness stand if the tenants sued them in small-claims court. Court records show that since 2007, 62 former tenants filed lawsuits in small-claims court.
In the following days, when Vinluan was not sneaking into his coworkers’ offices, he was on the phone calling hundreds of former tenants. He told them that an internal audit found mistakes on their security deposits. Vinluan said he would issue them a check if they agreed to not be a part of the class-action lawsuit.
Vinluan admitted to as much in a statement (obtained by the Reader through a Public Records Act request) that he provided to the Unemployment Insurance Board in June of this year.
“I couldn’t be truthful to some workers when asked what I was working on,” Vinluan wrote. “Some of the things that I was asked to do felt I felt were against my morals.”
In the following months after the class action was filed, three employees, including Rita Ruiz, filed lawsuits against the company. In their lawsuits they all claim the same things, that Willmark Communities, with the owner and general manager’s knowledge, encouraged employees to lie in order to keep people’s security deposits.
“They shove the kids around”
Douglas Rice and his wife moved into Alpine Woods, a half mile south of Interstate 8 along Tavern Road in Alpine, in 2010. During his move-in, Rice brought his washing machine and dryer. His dryer, however, was the wrong wattage and he rented one from Willmark. Five years later, when moving out, Rice took his washer and the dryer he stored with him.
After moving out, Rice received a summary of charges from Willmark. They kept his entire deposit and charged Rice and his wife $1000. In all, the bill came to approximately $2400. Willmark charged the couple to paint the entire apartment, to install new carpet, and a list of other items, including for the washer and dryer they brought with them five years earlier.
Rice says Rita Ruiz accused Rice of stealing the washer and dryer. She threatened to report Rice to law enforcement when he contested the charges.
“I was amazed at how brazen they are,” Rice said in a September 21 interview. “They are a few minor steps away from being mobsters. I had thought about filing an attempted-extortion lawsuit. I’m 70 years old and have been a tenant, owned property, and been a landlord. I have never seen an outfit that is legitimately so mischievous. This outfit is about as bad as it gets. I don’t know how or why they are still allowed to operate in this state. They are used to shoving people around. They shove the kids around, and the kids don’t know any better.”
Rice says he was about to file a small-claims case but then learned about the class action and joined. “Even if they paid me what they owed me I would still pursue this for what I say is attempted extortion. It was blatantly illegal.”
Kristen (who only wished to use her first name) and her two sons moved into Prominence Apartments south of State Route 78 at Twin Oaks Valley Road in San Marcos in July 2013. She noted that there were several stains on the carpet and it smelled like a dog had lived in the apartment before.
Soon after moving in, Kristen’s son’s allergies worsened. She took him to the doctor. He found dog dander to be a possible cause to his allergies. She requested that the carpet be replaced. Willmark told her that they would have it inspected but never followed through.
In April 2015, Kristen notified Willmark that she was moving. At the time she was on a month-to-month lease agreement. An employee inspected the apartment after she moved. The employee said the apartment needed to be touched up with paint in some places, the carpet cleaned, and additional cleaning of the bathroom and kitchen.
Three weeks later she received notice that Willmark charged her to replace the carpet and paint the entire apartment, as well as other fixes. They took her $325 deposit and charged her an additional $703.
“My first reaction was to sue them, because I was just blown away,” she said in a phone interview. “To think that they were charging me to replace the carpet that I had asked them to replace, the same carpet that made my son sick...it infuriated me.”
Terri Winbush and her family moved into a two-bedroom apartment at Rancho Hillside Apartments off Jamacha Road in Rancho San Diego. In December 2012 the family bought a house. Long after the 21-day deadline to receive security deposit returns, Winbush received hers. It was postmarked late and had been sent to her address at Rancho Hillside, not her new home. Willmark took Winbush’s entire $199 deposit as well as charged her an extra $151.
“It’s like they wanted me to receive it late,” Winbush says. “And when I finally did get the summary I was shocked to see that they wanted me to pay them for cleaning, despite us hiring cleaners. I wrote them a long letter citing the law. The law can be complicated but not in this instance.”
Winbush says she went back-and-forth with Ruiz to no avail. “In the end I refused to pay them. But not long after, while refinancing our home, I learned that Willmark tagged my credit. It affected my credit score, the loans I could get. It was extortion. I ended up having to pay them because I wouldn’t qualify to refinance our home.
“I didn’t go to court over it. I was pregnant, and it was such a small amount. I didn’t have the energy to deal with it. How many other people did the same thing? If you do it to enough people, then it’s a racket.”
In all cases, the tenants dealt with Rita Ruiz. Many said she refused to budge.
Ordered to lie
In December 2015, Ruiz filed her own lawsuit against Willmark. Her lawsuit and testimony she gave in a deposition for the class-action lawsuits echo what tenants and Vinluan had claimed.
Ruiz was hired in 2010 and was later promoted to work as a collections administrator at Willmark’s Mira Mesa headquarters.
In May 2015, around the time the class action was filed, Ruiz complained to general manager Williams about Willmark’s practices. According to her lawsuit, Ruiz was told to post-date documents, use pre-posted mail envelopes, and to charge former tenants to replace carpets and to paint regardless of the condition.
In her complaint, Ruiz stated that she met with Williams and another employee in May to tell them that she “believed Willmark’s business practices were illegal and unethical” and “former residents were angry about not getting the security deposit and they would verbally abuse and threaten her.”
Ruiz settled the claim in November 2016 for an undisclosed amount of money.
Ten months before settling the lawsuit, Ruiz testified in a deposition for the class-action lawsuit. She said that Williams and Schmidt told employees to delete emails from tenants who had complained about their security deposits.
“Do you think that people were being charged for repairs or paint jobs or other items that were not appropriate to be charged for?” plaintiffs’ attorney Leonard Simon asked Ruiz.
Ruiz responded, “Yes.”
Ruiz said her managers encouraged her to lie when testifying in small-claims cases the tenants had filed against the company. She estimated that she lied under oath “a dozen times.”
Other employees working on the property also confirm Willmark’s practice of keeping security deposits.
Kristen Buettner was hired in 2013. She worked at La Jolla Nobel Apartments and Prominence in San Marcos. Buettner also sued Willmark in December 2015 for wrongful demotions and for inflicting “emotional distress.”
In her complaint, Buettner says her supervisors told her to create fake documents, overcharge residents, and forced her to charge active military service members extra money when leaving on deployment. As was the case with Ruiz, Willmark and Buettner settled the case in November 2016 for an undisclosed amount.
Buettner, however, was deposed in the class-action lawsuit. During which, she testified that it was Willmark’s policy to use the highest quotes for repairs and then have in-house maintenance crews perform the work. “They were just reaming people of their security deposits, charging them more, charging them to upgrade the apartment when in fact the resident would move out and it would be completely fine. They would alter pictures, they would alter documents….”
Buettner also testified that her managers told her to lie during small-claims court cases. “I’ve seen previous residents come in that had a security deposit of thousands of dollars, two, three times the monthly rent, and not get that back when in fact their apartment was completely immaculate.”
Buettner added that Willmark often ignored rent laws regarding deployed members of the military.
“Is it your understanding that there’s a law, state or federal or both, that requires you to adjust those rents if a military person is shipped out?” asked attorney Simon.
“Absolutely, sure,” she responded.
“Do you think your supervisors knew that?
“And is what you’re saying that they didn’t follow that law?” said Simon.
“Absolutely. And I can give you two names of employees who quit because of that, because their spouses were military.”
And then there’s Bernard Vinluan.
In July 2016, Vinluan resigned. In an email to Williams, owner Schmidt, and Schmidt’s son, Vinluan wrote that he felt he was “asked to do things recently and within the past year since the lawsuit I didn’t feel right or it made me feel uncomfortable or uneasy.”
In June, Vinluan was denied unemployment benefits because he had resigned.
Vinluan appealed the decision. In his appeal he explained the reason for his resignation.
He explained in detail how Williams ordered him to be his “look-out” while they ransacked Ruiz’s office. He said Williams ordered him to search through Ruiz’s emails. “Growing up and being raised a Catholic my whole life — and still going to church — I felt guilt and wrong that I was not telling the truth…. I felt uncomfortable and uneasy looking through all her emails,” Vinluan wrote.
He said he was required to leave fake reviews on apartmentratings.com and other social media websites.
Vinluan confirmed the accounts from his coworkers who claim that he and others changed the postage meter to make it look as if they had sent refunds and statements earlier than they did.
The class-action lawsuit against Willmark alleged that the company had set up an intricate system to take tenants’ security deposits. And, if the tenants tried to fight the company in small-claims court, they had Ruiz and Vinluan to make sure the judge ruled in their favor. They did so by doctoring photos, creating invoices, and committing perjury.
Willmark’s attorney Warren Rissier responded to the class-action lawsuit and the claims made by employees in a September 27 email. “Willmark endeavors to treat all its current and former residents fairly and it looks forward to vindicating itself in the ongoing litigation,” writes Rissier.
Regarding employees being asked to lie under oath, Rissier wrote, “Willmark would never encourage or tolerate an employee lying on the witness stand.”
As to whether Willmark has changed or plans to change its security-deposit policy, Rissier adds, “Willmark adjusts its policies from time to time to improve the experiences of current and former residents in apartment communities it manages, and to compete in the marketplace with other housing options.