By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The letter arrived in C.J. Duffey's mailbox late last year, and everything about it seemed wrong.
"Dear Charles Duffy," it began, misspelling his last name. "Following your default from apartment #1204, you have an outstanding balance of $1728.80."
The money was due immediately. "If the amount requested is not paid, your file may be turned over to our attorney for litigation."
It was signed by Kendra Heintzelman, property supervisor of Centerpoint Apartments, a sprawling complex on Frankford Road in North Dallas. A similar letter arrived in Duffey's ex-wife's mail around the same time.
Neither had ever lived at Centerpoint. But their daughter, Kenya Gilstrap, had. It wasn't especially nice, but it wasn't far from Buttons in Addison, where Gilstrap sometimes performed as a singer. It was cheap: $484 a month. And they let Gilstrap's parents co-sign the lease.
"The apartment requested that we have liability," Duffey recalls. "And I see now that's what they were going after, the people that were co-signing for her."
Duffey lives about 80 miles east, in Sulphur Springs. He is a minister at Color Blind Ministries, a church that prides itself on its diversity. He owns a hospice in town and has a boxing room at the local gym, decorated with pictures from his youth, when he competed as an amateur and pro. He also works as bail bondsman in Hopkins County.
Fighting, in other words, is something he's accustomed to.
"I go to court on a weekly basis, so I know how to behave in court," he says.
He didn't pay the alleged balance. When he got a notice that Centerpoint had, in fact, sued him in Denton County Court, he filed an answer and got a court date. He expected a judge to throw the debt away after he got a chance to explain how it just came out of nowhere. "I thought that this was so cut and dried," he says.
But then he showed up in court and met his match — an apartment complex owned by a family of debt collectors and known for aggressively suing its tenants, in a courtroom whose judge has never ruled against them. He was about to learn the lesson other tenants have when they've moved out, and even before.
"We're kind of afraid to move," explains one Centerpoint resident, "because we heard rumors that when you move out, they fuck you."
Centerpoint is a bloated structure of white and gray brick, on a busy stretch of Frankford Road. It's surrounded by private parking lots that residents say double as a decent place to make a drug deal. It sits next to a commercial parking lot dotted with fast-food chains, a Metro PCS, a Kwick Stop and a pawn shop. The rent is cheap, which keeps the leasing office packed with prospective tenants, many of whom aren't keen on reading or honoring their leases too closely. The resulting lawsuits, which Centerpoint almost always wins, are expensive.
The complex is operated by the Zidell-Susman Co., a Dallas company run by Allan Zidell and Ari Susman. They don't appear to own a lot of other buildings in town, but Zidell does have his hands in another business: a debt collection agency called JSZ Financial, where he's a director. That company, which specializes in collecting property debts, is run by another Zidell, a man named Jeff, and shares an address with Zidell-Susman. (A JSZ secretary said that neither men would comment.)
At Centerpoint, the Zidell tradition appears to be taking tenants to court. The complex has filed more than 700 lawsuits against tenants since 1996, records show, far more than similarly sized buildings. That doesn't include simple eviction cases or the hundreds of times Centerpoint has asked a court to freeze the bank accounts of defendants it's successfully sued.
"I never lost a Centerpoint case," brags Jeffrey Sprigg, an attorney who represented Centerpoint for almost six years at the Suster Law Group, its law firm of choice. "And why is that? Because all of the claims we had were valid."
The courts tend to agree, leaving working-class tenants with bills in the thousands.
Like Duffey, Russell Scott Sawyer never lived at Centerpoint, but he and his ex-wife signed a lease there as a guarantor for their son Troy Durham, court records show. The lease would last from September 3, 2011, until March 31, 2012, and would automatically go month-to-month unless the Sawyers gave notice of their plans to break it 60 days in advance.
Sawyer faxed his 60-day notice to Heintzelman in January 2012, according to the "Notice to Vacate" form he submitted to the court. "Contract will be up 3/31/12 — tenant may choose to sign his own lease and stay in unit," he wrote.
But Heintzelman ignored his notice and continued to call him, Sawyer alleged in a letter to the court. And on March 28, two days before the lease ended, he emailed Centerpoint, stressing that he'd already submitted his notice: "Nothing has changed. We will not be responsible for the bill after March 31, 2012."
The phone calls continued, he told the court, and Durham remained in the apartment under the original lease co-signed by Sawyer. Sawyer filled out yet another "Notice to Vacate" on April 18, 2012 — about a month after the original lease was supposed to end, meaning that he now would be on the hook for the lease until the end of June. That is, if the vacate notice was acknowledged by Centerpoint. This one wasn't either. (Heintzelman claims that Sawyer changed his mind about his son moving out.)
The city must be getting a kickback from this company this is ludicrous. Any real judge would ask why a complex in the hood has sued over 700 people!?!? Really
Texas really needs more tenant and employee rights badly. It's sad. I hope karma comes there way
So glad Lincoln Property isn't like this. Yes, for many years they had the market rate/concession thing going but if you stayed for the duration of the lease, it wasn't a problem. I lived in the Village for longer than I care to admit but they never did me wrong. I got more back from my deposit than I actually thought I would. Yes, reading the lease is important so you know what you're responsible for but they're not going to change it for you so after year one, I initialed it without going over it with a fine toothed comb.
I lived here and can tell you from first-hand experience that this is VERY true. They will attempt to collect even from items you put on your walk-though form. Stay away from this place. Go live at a week-to-week hotel if you have to. Avoid this place at all costs (literally)!
To answer the question being asked about why this is in Denton Coiunty courts....
The property is located in Denton County and pays taxes to Denton county, city of Dallas and Carrollton ISD
How is this Apartment Complex in Dallas, on Frankford, suing in Denton County? There is something fishy going on. The cases should be filed in their jurisdiction, Dallas. This Judge needs to be looked into Big Time. Also,does the Denton Courts not address this at the time of filing? -I very disappointed in the Denton Courts also.
Shouldn't the Texas Attorney General look into this company?
I mean, this has been going on for too long.
I think we need to call for an audit of Centerpoint... I bet ya they wont have to look very deep to find something really nasty there....
Someone should simply burn the place down and hang the management - and then roll them up and smoke them.
Did any of these folks appeal to the County Court like you can with an eviction in JP Court? When I was evicted, I appealed and it went to the County judge and was a brand new trial. I won my appeal. If the justice of the peace is so bad, wouldn't at least someone get a win at the County Court?
Ok, am I missing something? The story talks about how huge the complex is and says there have been 700 lawsuits filed since 1996. That works out to roughly 41 suits a year. Are any of these evictions? And it says the judge has ruled on 55 trials. If she was elected in 2006, that puts it at just under 8 trials a year. Let's say there are 500 units in the complex. That works out to be 1.6 percent of the their tenants! So 98.4% of the tenants are NOT sued?
And isn't it strange that gosh, if it's not the lawyers (who apparently know what they are doing), it must be the judge's fault because, gosh, tenants NEVER break their lease.
I'm sorry, but this sounds like a lot of sour grapes from people who lost. Wilonski leaves and the Observer is left to this? What's next: "The Outrage of Sunrise: How the Western United States are Being Screwed by the Earth's Rotation."
Well, apparently, the lesson here is if you are going to rent in Dallas, be smart, be educated, and be rich.
Wow. With all of the people who rent in Dallas and the surrounding cities, this should be a huge wake up call to do one's homework and READ THE FINE PRINT. While the clientele at the complex doesn't sound like it's the best, the management is very obviously using its tenants in this little 'criminal' sideline business to make themselves more money. Add an equally slimey lawyer and a judge who always rules in favor of the complex, and you have the very reason why our justice system is a mess. The fact that they have continued to appeal a measly $1,500 claim for FIVE YEARS(!!!) shows you all you need to know about them. They're crooks! As a tenant myself, I always worry about what I might do--even unknowingly--that may cause legal repercussions for myself, so I try to document and photograph everything. It's sad to know that in Texas, the tenant does not have the legal system watching our backs, yet we literally throw away our hard earned money each month when we rent. Something is definitely NOT right.
Great job digging in on this! The laws need to change but that's not likely to happen anytime soon in Texas where corporations and businesses are favored about people always.
I agree with you. Hope these people will get on Yelp.com, RipOffReport.com and other ratings systems to get the word out!
@jglaser1000 that address is Denton County, and the property pays taxes to Denton county
@fir3walker oh, you told a funny there. at least about the attorney general looking for wrongdoing.
@rlisch6 I think the best solution is to avoid Centerpoint and call for an investigation of Patty Larson to see if she's getting paid by Centerpoint.
You are so far off base, why did you bother commenting? You assumed full occupancy along with the number of units that you made up. There's never full occupancy at this place. You also assume a yearly turnover to come up with your ratio. What about the tenants that have been there 5 or 8 years. People that need cheap rent often don't pick up and move every year, it is just not feasible. AND, you assume that this judge started seeing the cases from the beginning of her 2006 tenure. Why would a Denton Court be involved in a Dallas Case? Do you think this Apartment Complex has been going up to Denton this whole time thinking that no one would get suspicious on why the cases are not being tried in Dallas where they are supposed to be? -Seems like you are also a friend of these people!
@rlisch6 I agree! we need to get the word out that Centerpoint engages in these types of practices.
Too many sour grapes!
"You can check out any time you like. (if you have $3,568 handy)"
"CENTERPOINT - IT'S JUST CHEAPER IF YOU STAY... OK?"
@rlisch6 Not every case ends up in court. Most former residents pay up in order to avoid it.
@rlisch6 works for Centerpoint.
And most of the lawsuits filed don't go to trial. There's only a trial if the person who is being sued files an answer and shows up to court.
Yes, be educated enough not to let them take you to court somewhere else than the county you are in, because they just might have a Judge in their Pocket!
@whocareswhatithink Unless the judge is getting something under the table, I'm not sure following the law as written is slimy. At least Ms. Cadenas put her money where her mouth was and got the law changed.
@TXsharon Kudos to Ms. Cadenas for getting the law changed! She didn't whine, she pushed for change and got it. THAT