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[September 02, 2006]

OSU students suing landlord: Realty company intentionally hid utility cost, suit says

(Columbus Dispatch (Ohio) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Sep. 2--Ohio State University's Student Housing Legal Clinic is helping to sue a local landlord for fraud, in what attorneys say could grow into a class-action lawsuit involving hundreds of people.

The suit against NorthSteppe Realty says the company intentionally misled students about the cost of utilities, then hit them with bills for hundreds of dollars when they moved out.

Four students and three parent co-signers are listed on the lawsuit filed in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, but OSU clinic attorney Paul Wilkins thinks hundreds of others could benefit.

"Hopefully they'll come forward, too, and we'll stop this business from doing this," said Kathleen Bonaventura, one of the parents involved in the lawsuit. She co-signed NorthSteppe leases for her daughter, Bridget, for two years beginning in September 2002.

Besides fraud, the lawsuit accuses NorthSteppe of negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract and asks for $25,000 in compensatory damages, more than $25,000 in punitive damages and relief from paying the additional utility costs.

NorthSteppe referred The Dispatch to Columbus attorney Doug Graff for comment, but Graff did not return calls yesterday.

Wilkins said the company scammed students this way: Plaintiffs signed leases that listed a "base rent" plus a "gas budget" that was added to the rent each month. The lease listed the gas budget at $50 a month and stated it was "based on the previous usage." It also said the tenant, at the end of the lease, had to pay the landlord the difference between the actual cost and the $50 payments.

When tenants moved out, they learned that their gas bills had been grossly underestimated, Wilkins said.

In Bridget Bonaventura's case, NorthSteppe notified her that she and her roommate owed $1,670 in additional utility bills for their two years in an apartment at 12 E. Norwich Ave.

NorthSteppe, 10 E. 17 th Ave., refused to return their deposit of $795 and billed them for the remaining $875.

Kathleen Bonaventura refused to pay Bridget's share and sought the legal clinic's help after she talked with other former NorthSteppe residents who also had been billed hundreds of dollars for utility costs.

"I was even more angry when I found out it was everybody," said Bonaventura, of Gahanna. "Could I afford to pay the bill? I could. But the point is they're going to do this to more and more students then. I just think it's wrong."

Wilkins said NorthSteppe set the gas budgets low to make students think the apartments were less expensive. The company went after students because they are inexperienced, transient and seldom have the resources to sue, he said.

The legal clinic tried to resolve the issue with North-Steppe before filing the lawsuit Monday, Wilkins said.

Bonaventura said she attempted to talk to NorthSteppe about the utility bill after her daughter moved out. She said she asked for evidence of the gas usage in her daughter's apartment but never received it.

"The next thing I know, an attorney who's a debt collector is calling me," she said.

Bonaventura said that even if NorthSteppe had mistakenly set the gas budget at $50 during the first year of her daughter's lease, the company should have known when Bridget kept the apartment for a second year that the budgeted price should have been higher.

"They just left it the same," she said. "At the end of the first year it should have been raised."

The other former residents involved in the lawsuit also rented for two years, at a different apartment at 12 E. Norwich Ave.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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