Students face lawsuit during exams

One house’s experience illustrates pitfalls of student-landlord relationships 

Students facing lawsuits during exams inherit reduced legal resources.

More than ten years ago, Phil Lam won the first ever Golden Cockroach—a discontinued AMS award presented to landlords of the University District’s worst houses. 

The award no longer exists, but the complaints remain: students continue to report problems from Lam. 

In one case, Queen’s student Oliver Burke and his five housemates awoke one morning in late March to find a lawsuit requesting $10,700 in damages on their doorstep.

A few weeks later, they were expected to appear in court at the height of exam season. 

Burke and his housemates’ lease on William Street began in the summer of 2017. By the time they moved out the following spring, the pipes froze, a nearly 50-year-old furnace stopped working and they had no access to their kitchen for the winter months. 

As the weather turned cold, Burke and his  five housemates had to cover up a window that had been broken when they moved in, using pizza boxes and grocery bags. 

Meanwhile, a workman named Harry, hired by Lam, did repairs in the house throughout the year. Lam expected Burke and his housemates to pay for Harry’s time and work, but Burke claims they were unaware of this.

“We were getting billed for copious amounts of materials for stuff that we didn’t even know had been fixed,” Burke told The Journal in a phone interview. “The way [Lam] expressed it in his emails and talking to us, there was never any sort of consent that we were going to be paying for anything that [Harry] was fixing.” 

At one point during the year, Burke said Harry painted over a crack in the wall, and Lam allegedly charged the housemates $500. 

According to Burke, he and his housemates never requested that Harry come into their house, and Lam never told them when Harry would be making repairs. By the end of the 2017 fall term, Burke said Harry wouldn’t even knock.

His housemates nevertheless agreed when Harry offered to renovate their kitchen during winter break. Harry allegedly gave them a two-week time frame for the project. According to Burke, he took two months longer than he’d promised, making the kitchen unusable until the end of February. 

In an emailed statement to The Journal, Lam’s legal representative, Ian McInnis, claimed the long renovation happened because “someone left the windows open over Christmas break,” causing the pipes to burst.

“Culpability could not be proven,” McInnis wrote.  

When Burke and his housemates appeared in court on Apr. 25, they tried to request an adjournment for their court date so they could focus on exams. Their request was denied. 

Although Burke and his housemates had only four hours to prepare to face Lam, they were able to decrease the damages requested by Lam from $10,700 to $700. 

“The insane part about this is the whole year it was just the talking point about how bad our house was,” he continued. “How grit it was. It was kind of funny until it was really not funny.”

Burke said he knew of at least ten other alleged lawsuits Lam had served to students in the University District during the winter term exam season, although those students refused request for comment from The Journal.  

Addressing Burke’s claim, McInnis wrote that Lam “filed other applications against tenants at other addresses for unpaid rent and/or damage to his property because he has the same right to do so as any other landlord.”

Burke claimed Lam relies on exam-induced stress to keep students from attending their court dates and fighting the lawsuits. Although McInnis denies this, Burke claims McInnis told him and his housemates it would be easier for them to not show up.  

Perhaps the housemates would have done just that if they hadn’t approached John Done, a lawyer from Kingston’s community legal clinic, for legal aid. 

Although he was working on over ten other cases, Burke said Done offered to represent them. He even drove them home at the end of the day.

According to Burke, Done told the housemates he’d seen other students in distress because of similar lawsuits. In an interview with The Journal, Done said he’d been aware of Lam’s cases for many years but hadn’t taken action until now. 

“This year, what I saw at least twice, and I think probably more, were a series of applications that Mr. Lam brought to the Landlord and Tenant Board,” Done told The Journal. “In these applications he was asking the board to order groups of students to pay him money for damaging his buildings.”

However, Done was concerned that Lam “may have obtained things to which he may have not been entitled.”

This concern is a result of the amount of overreaching in the case of Burke and his housemates. Lam only recovered 6.5 percent of the amount he asked for, meaning that, according to Done, 93.5 percent of what he asked for had “no merit.”

Lam not only accused Burke and his housemates of breaking the window which was broken when they moved in, he also attempted to receive compensation for the time spent removing the grocery bags and pizza boxes they used to cover it up. 

Burke and his housemates were able to refute this by presenting photos and emails which proved that they had asked for the broken window to be fixed when they moved in. 

According to Done, the one thing that distinguished Burke’s case from all of Lam’s other cases was that Burke and his housemates had the support of an experienced lawyer. 

“But what about all of the other cases?” he asked. “What if they’d had an experienced lawyer? Because an experienced lawyer prevents overreaching.”

He said Burke and his housemates were “entirely unsuited” to defend themselves against Lam, adding this inexperience was “complicated by the fact that these proceedings were scheduled during exam times.”

“Beyond the obvious fact that this was a time that students should be focusing on their calculus exam, what it meant is that because [the court date] was scheduled during exam times, another resource to which they would have been expected to approach for help was unavailable,” Done said, referring to Queen’s Legal Aid.

At least one of the students Done represented in Burke’s case had to leave to write an exam. 

“He had to make a choice, about whether to keep his focus on succeeding in an exam, or to focus instead on this hearing,” he said. “Any adult knows what to tell them: focus on your exams, it’s your future.” 

Although it is Lam’s decision when to file applications with the Landlord and Tenant Board, McInnis wrote it’s up to the board to schedule hearings. 

McInnis added Burke and his housemates are “enjoying another year at the same address with Mr. Lam as their landlord,” and that the “parties seem to be content.”

Burke, however, has moved out of the William Street house, and told The Journal he avoided one of Lam’s properties while searching for a new lease. 

He’s not alone. Other students have taken similar action since Lam won his second Golden Cockroach award in 2007. 

Dave Sinkinson, ArtSci ‘11, was the Municipal Affairs Commissioner when the award was discontinued in 2012, largely because of the damaging effect it had on student-landlord relations. 

At the time, he told The Journal the Golden Cockroach award “poisons any relationship we can have with landlords to help you fix your property,” and it was something “very reckless for the Society to be doing.”

The cancellation of the award may have saved the AMS from legal risks, but dozens of students in the University District don’t share the luxury.

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