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Landlord gets rid of tenant who complained of rat infestation

Photo: Catherine Kelly, (R), confers with her attorney on July, 14, 2017.

Despite a decision in her favor in County Judge David Morgan’s courtroom last Friday, Catherine Kelly will still be forced out of her rented home by the end of August after complaining about rat infestation at the property.

When Kelly’s landlord, Mark Titone, didn’t remedy the rat problem at her home after repeated complaints, she took stronger action, filing complaints with the Department of Health of Indian River County and the City of Vero Beach Department of Code Enforcement.

Shortly afterward, Titone tried to evict her, claiming she had not paid her June rent and stating that he planned to sell the dilapidated house at 1833 10th Avenue where Kelly lives with her teenage son and daughter.

Kelly fought the eviction attempt and at the Friday hearing her Florida Rural Legal Services Attorney, Valencia Stubbs, submitted Kelly’s rent receipts, proving she is current with her rent. Stubbs also argued Kelly’s lease required that Titone give 30-days notice before ordering her out, instead of the 15-day notice he gave.

Judge Morgan dismissed Titone’s eviction case and ruled Kelly owes no rent, but Titone employed a tactic he has used frequently when renters lawyer up and fight his eviction attempts:  negotiating a last-minute, out-of-court agreement with Stubbs and Kelly to evade fines or sanctions.

In hallway negotiations, Stubbs gave up requests for legal fees and damages in exchange for an agreement that Kelly can stay in her home until Aug. 31 and will get her rental deposit back.

Titone owns 44 rental units in Indian River County. In February, Vero Beach 32963 reported he has brought nearly 70 eviction actions against tenants since 2010. Court documents reveal a common thread. Many of the defendants claimed Titone promised to make a rented property livable, but never did. When they complained, he filed an eviction notice.

With few homes on the market in her price range, Kelly too rented Titone’s house at 1833 10th Ave. based on promises. Since July last year, problems he was supposed to fix have never been completed or recurred after being fixed improperly – with rat infestation the biggest problem.

Asked about Kelly’s complaints, Titone said, “No evidence of rat or roach issues or any other pests has been presented. ... We have observed on several occasions dog food and dirty dishes/water left in the sink which pest control will inform you is extremely attractive to pests.”

Belying Titone’s claim are the Vero Beach Code Enforcement and Health Department of Indian River County documents, which point to poor structural repair as the reason for the rat infestation.

According to those documents, it appears the house on 10th Avenue has had a rat problem for years. In 2014 the house was tenanted by Tina Kumar, who also filed a complaint with the Vero Beach Code Enforcement. At that time, Code Enforcement Officer Tom Ramsey cited Titone for windows being inoperable and for windows and doors not being rodent proof.

When Kelly complained in April after being bitten by a rat, Ramsey cited Titone for nearly identical infractions, noting “inoperable windows,” “exterior doors are not weather/water/or pest and rodent tight.”

Ramsey re-inspected the house about a month later and found “all corrections have been made to code,” according to his report, which had no other details on the violations or corrective actions.

Ramsey said Titone usually comes into compliance quickly. The latest citation “could very well be for different windows and doors,” Ramsey said. “It’s a very old house.”

But rats were and still are getting into the house. When the Health Department sent an inspector to the house, not only were “rodent droppings” found, wrote inspector G.R. Schuessler, but there was “a dead rat in a trap in kitchen!!”

Schuessler found that Kelly’s “housekeeping is satisfactory,” and saw “no evidence of trash, debris or garbage,” which cleared Kelly as being responsible for the confirmed presence of rats.