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."