For some Roosevelt residents, a lawsuit is landlord Hugh Sisley's weapon of last resort to acquire a property he's decided to own. "It's an incredibly nasty thing to do," says Jim Werntz, recalling his own experience with a Sisley lawsuit. Sisley, who owns at least 43 rental properties in Roosevelt worth more than $6 million, has a track record of suing his own tenants and nearby homeowners. Currently, Sisley is embroiled in a legal scuffle with Howard Roth, a podiatrist who's erected a new clinic on a lot the Roosevelt landlord wanted to buy.
Sisley is a controversial figure in his North Seattle community for more than his custom of taking people to court. He's come under fire lately from Roosevelt residents and city government for neglecting his properties. Sisley has racked up 87 citations from the Department of Construction and Land Use (DCLU) in the last 15 years. Infractions range from overflowing garbage on his lawns to missing porch steps. Consequently, neighbors say, these properties are eyesores and nuisances. "It's really quite offensive," Roosevelt High School principal David Humphrey complained at a recent hearing.
DCLU has responded to complaints by toughening enforcement of its land use codes. The agency's first action has been to sweep Roosevelt for code violations on Sisley's and other homeowners' properties.
Some Roosevelt residents are worried about the sheer volume of property under Sisley's control, concerned that his rundown property drives other homeowners away, at which point their homes sometimes fall into his hands. Susan Baker of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association says residents are afraid to speak up because they feel they might be sued. She claims she has several acquaintances who have moved in frustration, only to have their homes added to Sisley's empire. "He makes it so bad for the people who live nearby that they just give in," she says. Werntz concurs, saying that Sisley "wins by attrition. I know he lowballs a lot of houses in the area."
Werntz, an Environmental Protection Agency employee who calls Roosevelt a "really great neighborhood," still can hardly believe that he wound up in court for refusing to sell his home to Sisley. "It's not that hard to mess up somebody's house sale," he complains. "What surprised me was that [Sisley] wanted [our home] that much." In 1997, Werntz decided to put his house on the market after he and his wife decided to divorce. Within a week Sisley made a full-price offer on Werntz's turn-of-the-century Tudor. Werntz refused, explaining, "We cared about our neighbors."
In retaliation, Sisley filed a lawsuit demanding $250,000 in emotional distress, more than the price of the house, plus the right to buy it. Most infuriating to Werntz, Sisley also put a cloud on his house's title. Werntz says his lawyer assured him he would have won if he had fought. "[Homeowners] don't have an obligation to sell to someone who makes an offer," says Werntz's attorney, Tony Rafel. But the startled homeowner backed down and agreed to settle out of court. Werntz says it wasn't worth spending two to three years battling Sisley through the judicial system.
Sisley did not return calls asking for comment on the case.
Werntz sums up, "I had to decide what was more important, being right or getting on with my life."
Sisley does not always win his courtroom battles so easily. The suit he's brought against podiatrist Roth, which he's losing, is a case in point. Sisley brought legal action against the foot doctor, according to court documents, to register protests about the siting and construction of a new clinic, which is located next door to one of the landlord's rental homes. In court documents, Sisley asserts he made an offer of $100,000 for the entire property, thinking that Dr. Roth would accept it as a way to settle.
Roth's lawyer, Greg Lawless, accuses Sisley in legal briefs of plotting to get the land at a bargain by first bringing a "barrage" of accusations against Roth to "wear him down financially."
Sisley has answered that he has no secret designs on the lot where the clinic stands. "He doesn't have to own that property for any particular reason," says Sisley spokesman Keith Gilbert. Sisley claims in his suit that Roth built the clinic too close to the line separating the two men's properties.
Lawless, Roth's attorney, concludes that Sisley brought a baseless suit to intimidate the podiatrist off his property. "Plaintiff uses litigation as a tool to attain his personal goals, not to resolve disputes," Lawless asserts.
King County Judge Jim Bates dismissed Sisley's case, saying in court, "These claims should disappear. All of them."
But Judge Bates will be presiding this week over Roth's countersuit against Sisley. Roth will seek compensation for emotional distress, loss of revenue (while his construction project was on hold), and attorney's fees.
If Roth prevails it may cost Sisley big, but that may not matter.
Werntz says the risk of monetary loss is no deterrent to Sisley when he feels like bringing a lawsuit. Sisley "will make a bad financial decision just to be right," he says. Looking back to when he was on the receiving end of such a suit, Werntz adds, "I'm just so glad to be out of the neighborhood."