Five years ago this month, a Dallas County justice of the peace signed an order evicting Clifford Holland from the $1.2 million home he was renting on Caruth Boulevard, a block outside of University Park. Aside from the eye-popping $6,000-per-month rent, the case was a routine tenant-landlord dispute: Landlord claims renter doesn't pay rent, landlord sues, tenant has to pay overdue rent and find somewhere else to live.
Also fairly routine was Holland's decision to appeal the judgment. Where things started to break down, and where a simple rent dispute began to turn into the Jarndyce-esque legal morass Holland's case has become, is when the appeal wound up in Judge D'metria Benson's courtroom. Five years and multiple appellate decisions later, the case continues to grind its way through the legal system.
"We've been to the court of appeals four times," says an exasperated Bill Wolf, a University Park attorney and owner of the Caruth Boulevard home. "It's over a $6,000 rent payment in August 2009. [These things are] supposed to be done expeditiously."
Benson was first elected in 2006 as part of the electoral wave that put Dallas County's entire judiciary in Democratic hands. She's been consistently rated as the worst civil court judge in the county in the Dallas Bar Association's biennial judicial poll. The results aren't even close. Eighty-six percent of 294 lawyers surveyed in 2013 said Benson's performance "needs improvement," 25 points worse than the second-worst civil judge. This case offers a glimpse of why.
Holland, who has represented himself for most of the case, left the house sometime in 2010. As of 2013 he was living under an alias at the Ritz-Carlton, according to the University Park police officers who tracked him there after he allegedly snatched his two kids from his ex-wife's home while she was out jogging.
That left Holland and Wolf ostensibly fighting over a missed $6,000 rent payment from August 2009. But Benson, in her pique over Wolf's continued attempts to evict Holland as the case stalled and an appeals court that has repeatedly overturned her decisions in the case, has raised the stakes immensely.
Benson's first run-in with the appellate court in the case came in January 2010. Wolf, tired of waiting for the trial to resume, had gone back and won an additional eviction judgment for rent due the previous month. Benson accused Wolf of trying to "usurp the authority of this court" and tried to strike down the JP's ruling, but the Fifth Court of Appeals ruled that she didn't have the authority. She tried to strike down a subsequent JP ruling, but the Fifth Court again intervened. Benson wrote testily in a court filing that the appellate court's decision was "manifestly unjust" and accused Wolf of withholding evidence in his appeal. She also signed an order preventing Wolf from selling the Caruth Boulevard house, which was then on the market through Ebby Halliday for $1.4 million.
By then, Wolf had decided that Benson was "aligned with Clifford Holland" and "biased and/or prejudiced against creditors" and filed two motions to have her recused. She ignored both, and the case went to trial on September 20. She ruled in Holland's favor, as Wolf had predicted, but did Holland one better and ordered Wolf to pay him nearly $30,765.62 in attorney's fees, even though Holland had represented himself for most of the case and despite the fact that the attorney who briefly represented him had asked to be removed from the case citing unpaid legal fees, and $68,400 for the "reasonable value of Holland's time."
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The Fifth Court again stepped in and, in 2013, declared the trial void. It waded into the case for a fourth time this week to invalidate another Benson ruling, again deciding that she'd interfered with JP cases outside of her authority by preventing their contempt orders from being carried out. Holland had been arrested on one at a hearing in Benson's court the month before. Wolf says he would have had Holland arrested elsewhere, but his court dates were the only time he could be found.
The case continues to drag on, but this time the Fifth Court of Appeals might have had enough. Along with its most recent opinion, the appellate court sent Dallas County's presiding civil judge a note wondering "whether this case should be transferred from County Court at Law No. 1 to another court to provide for the efficient administration of justice."
A more satisfactory option might be removing Benson herself from County Court at Law No. 1. Russell Roden, the Republican she replaced in 2006, is seeking to regain his seat. He left office with a 91 percent approval rating from the Dallas Bar.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.