Woman's loss highlights landlord-tenant disputes

Article Courtesy of The News-Journal


Published March 16, 2011


ORANGE CITY -- Janet Godfrey, age 85, was alone and angry when she made a decision.


She was not going to pay the lot rent to Orange Tree Village, the mobile-home community where she has lived for 17 years. After all, she figured, it was management's fault her home flooded a number of times in recent years.

"My (residence) is growing black mildew on the rugs which I have to replace them and can't afford it, I am getting sick from this, and no response from management isn't helping either," she wrote in a letter dated Nov. 24 in a Volusia County Court file.

But hers was a losing case, one which one lawyer familiar with landlord-tenant disputes would call "an expensive adventure."

Volusia County Judge Bryan Feigenbaum ruled last month Godfrey would have to pay the fees of Tallahassee attorney Karl Scheuerman, who represented Orange Tree Village. The amount: $3,225.40.

Six months after making her stand, Godfrey is in a worse position, still unhappy. She said she even attempted suicide a few weeks back.

Kirk Bauer, a DeLand attorney whose specialties include landlord-tenant relations but was not involved in Godfrey's case, said residents who are unhappy with conditions in a mobile-home or manufactured-home park need to be careful about withholding rent.

Florida Statutes chapter 723.063 spells out what a tenant must do: Give seven days' notice in writing to the landlord that he or she does not intend to pay, and specifying in detail what part of the agreement the landlord has broken.

"A material noncompliance with this chapter by the park owner is a complete defense to an action for possession based upon nonpayment of rent," the statute reads.

While Godfrey might have had a claim about the flooding, it wouldn't matter in court unless she followed the requirement of properly notifying the landlord, Bauer said. And it made her subject to the landlord's legal fees.

"As you can tell, this has become an expensive adventure," Bauer said. "The attorney fees in these cases can sometimes far exceed the amount in dispute."

A few weeks back, Godfrey was tired of fighting. She said she took half a bottle of aspirin and tied a plastic bag over her head.

Her suicide attempt didn't work.

"I can't eat. I can't sleep. I'm a bundle of nerves," she said earlier this month, still stewing over the judge's decision. She now must pay an extra $100 a month, on top of her lot rent, $432.47, until sometime in late 2013. It's a big hit on her income, a Social Security check totaling $1,440 a month.

Godfrey is a widow, alone except for her 17-year-old white poodle Sugar, who sleeps a lot. A native New Yorker, she was a 68-year-old divorcee when she moved to the home in 1994. Two years later, she married the home's owner, Thomas Godfrey, who has since died.

She still has a gray Chevy Caprice Classic with the Florida vanity plate "JAN TOM," although she doesn't drive much because she says she can't afford the price of gasoline.

"I'm hanging on by a thread," she said Thursday, a day on which it rained but did not flood her home.

In her anger in recent weeks, Godfrey called state agencies. She called the city. She called news organizations.

Orange City Planner Jim Kerr is one public official who checked into her claims.

His conclusion: The water intrusions, however many there have been, aren't the fault of Orange Tree Village, a community of more than 200 lots just west of the Gel Corp. landfill and industrial area. She simply lives on the lowest property in the area.

And while he has no doubt it got wet in 2008 during Tropical Storm Fay, a 500-year storm, so did many other areas of Southwest Volusia.

If anything good has come of her expensive adventure, it's that the Volusia Council on Aging was referred to her.

Doug Beach, the council's executive director, said the agency is providing help by "deep cleaning" her home and bringing her Meals on Wheels.

Godfrey is thankful for the council's help, but she's still unhappy. She's unhappy with Orange Tree Village officials and her neighbors, who she says don't support her like she helped older residents when she first moved there. And she's unhappy with area healthcare providers, who she says don't know "diddly squat" about geriatric patients.

"(Getting old) is awful," she said. "Arthritis, heart trouble, little things."

She's got one remaining hope.

"If I win the Powerball," she said, "I'm getting the hell out of Florida. Australia is better to its older people."