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Rent Board Ordered to Pay Attorney $20,000 in Fees

By Jorge Casuso

A Superior Court Judge on Tuesday ordered the Santa Monica Rent Control Board to pay a local landlord attorney $20,000 in fees, capping an unusual case that has dragged on since 1994.

The fees - among the highest paid by the board in recent years - come in addition to an award of $6,873 for costs in the case, which stems from a rent increase petition by the landlord, Seacall, to recoup improvement costs to an 11-unit building.

By the time an Appellate Court judge decided in the landlord's favor last year, only two tenants remained in the building, which had been converted to condominiums under the city sponsored TORCA program. As a result, the landlords will reap a total increase of $78-a-month.

"The tenants have enjoyed all of the capital improvements, they've enjoyed the benefits," said landlord Attorney Gordon P. Gitlen. "The landlord should have had the increases a long time ago. Who's going to pay for that?"

Rent board officials acknowledge that the attorney's fees, though half the $40,000 Gitlen requested, is high.

"It's been quite a while" since the board paid such a high fee, said Doris Ganga, the Rent Board's general counsel. "It's been at least a year, probably longer."

The case began in 1994, when the rent board granted Seacall rent increases that were lower than the landlord had requested. The landlord's former attorney, Brenda Barnes, filed a petition to override the decision. The case did not go to trial for two years, and in 1996, the trial court moved to dismiss the petition on the grounds of failure to prosecute.

Barnes, who later resigned from the State Bar, did not respond to the trial court's letters and, after missing two hearings on the matter, her client's pleading was dismissed.

Gitlen replaced Barnes on the date she filed a notice of resignation with the bar - March 3, 1997 - and began working on the case, only to learn later that the motion had been dismissed.

Accusing Barnes of misconduct and arguing that Seacall should not be held liable for her actions, Gitlen asked the trial court for relief from dismissal, but the motion was denied.

The appellate court overruled the decision, saying that Barnes had "abandoned" her client and had been "professionally irresponsible." If the attorney is so negligent as to be guilty of misconduct, then the attorney/client relationship can be judged void, the court ruled.

The award granted Tuesday ends a chapter in the career of Barnes, a former rent board hearings officer turned landlord attorney.

Once the darling of Santa Monica property owners, Barnes filed a voluminous number of increase petitions. To raise rents above the allowable limit, she also concocted a list that charged tenants additional rent for amenities such as appliances or permission to have pets.

Disgruntled clients brought Barnes to the attention of the bar, which identified 10 alleged violations ranging from misleading advertising to incompetence and failure to return unearned fees.

Barnes unusual resignation -- about 100 of the state's 120,000 licensed attorneys a year resign from the bar -- short-circuited disciplinary proceedings. She must wait until 2002 before reapplying for her license.

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