Have a landlord dispute? What about a beleaguering MIP?
Well, the Legal Information Center will be presenting Lunch With A Lawyer on Tuesday, March 6 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Viking Union 567, allowing students the chance to receive legitimate and free legal advice from lawyers. I spoke with Jeff Lustick, one of the attorneys participating in Lunch With a Lawyer, over the phone and asked his legal advice on several student legal scenarios. Lustick, a 1993 graduate of Western, practices law locally at his own firm, Lustick Law, and can be heard contributing his legal advice over the airwaves on the Debbie Chavez show on KGMI AM790.

Scenario 1: You’ve received a minor drug charge that, if convicted, could threaten your ability to receive financial aid.

Jeff Justick: What people will sometimes do in the city of Bellingham is negotiate an agreement with the prosecutor, called a stipulated order of continuance, also sometimes called a diversion, where they’ll complete an eight-hour drug information course, undergo a drug evaluation and complete community service. In exchange for doing all that and maintaining good behavior for six months, the prosecutor typically will either reduce the charge or dismiss the charge outright depending on what the person’s background history is. While Bellingham seems to have high numbers in drug related arrests, the prosecutors are usually pretty reasonable at working with students to avoid greater consequences. Only a final conviction goes on your permanent record, and under President Bush’s executive order a conviction can bar you from receiving consideration for federal financial aid.

Scenario 2: You take your car for an oil change, the mechanic does not adequately replenish the oil supply, leading to the termination of your car.

JL: This is a consumer law question and the person that replaced the oil in the vehicle may have acted in a negligent manner. You should contact the oil change place and let them know there’s been some damage to the vehicle due to the way it was serviced, and that it was serviced in an inadequate way. Also when you’re dealing with a business or corporation or partnership it’s sometimes helpful to contact the Attorney General’s office. Washington state’s Attorney General’s office has a consumer protection division that can offer support and assist customers in negotiating settlements on negligence claims like these. I always recommend that people be proactive when they have a case with vendors or retailers and that they always put their complaints in writing.

Scenario 3: Roommate ditches out on rent.

JL: When one or more than one people sign a lease, everybody on the lease is joint and severally liable for the paying the rent, and the fulfillment of all of the recitals and promises under the lease. If one of the roommates doesn’t pay rent, the remaining roommates are going to have to cover the share of that person, and the law does not allow one person to just quit the contract. Now if the landlord knew one person was moving out and agreed to re-execute the contract that would be another story. Generally if you have more than one name on the lease, each and every person named as a party on the lease will be responsible for payment of rent as well as responsible for maintaining the property.

Scenario 4: Is it lawful for landlords to expect tenants to forfeit part of their damage deposit for simple maintenance things, such as carpet cleaning?

JL: Washington has a residential landlord-tenant act, which would require that any agreement to forfeit or pay any of the damage deposit must be in writing and signed by all parties. There is no limitation in the law that would require the tenant to pay a certain amount of the damage deposit as long as the tenant knew that that obligation would exist at the time that the lease was signed. However landlords must follow certain procedures to terminate a tenancy. When tenants move out, the damage deposit must be refunded within a reasonable time or it would be a violation of the law to withhold that money. The landlord has 14 days after the tenant moves out to return the deposit or give a written explanation of why the deposit or any part of it is not refunded. If the landlord does not comply with these requirements, the full amount of the deposit must be refunded to the tenant regardless of any claims made by the landlord that the tenant is not entitled to the full amount.

Scenario 5: You pre-leased an apartment, meaning you signed a lease several months before you intended to move in and start paying rent, under the assumption that the apartment would be in the same condition when you moved in as when you signed the lease. You move in and severe damage has been done to the front door and the electrical system is not completely in working order. Six months later no repairs have been made. What action can you take?

JL: Under the residential-landlord-tenant act, landlords must maintain the rental property and must have the rental property up to building codes and codes of occupancy. If there is something wrong with the structural components of the building, or if the common areas are not kept clean and safe and if it’s not reasonably free of pests, and if the facilities don’t supply heat, electricity or cold or hot water, and if the doors don’t lock, it could be a violation of the landlord-tenant act, and you as a tenant have the right to terminate the rental agreement and move out after giving a written notice to a landlord. But you need to check your lease because sometimes a lease imposes certain other obligations on the tenant before you can move out. It’s also important at this point that you contact an attorney who may be able to assist you in notifying the local authorities in getting the situation corrected in a timely and efficient manner.

Students may also be eligible for free legal assistance off campus. According to Lustick, The Northwest Justice Project operates Project Safer, offering services for anyone who’s unable to afford an attorney and has a domestic violence related family law issues. Legal Assistance by Whatcom (LAW) Advocates is the Whatcom County bar Association’s volunteer lawyer program. They offer no fee or reduced fee legal representation in areas of elder law, bankruptcy, landlord tenant and occasionally other areas upon request.