Three weeks ago, a Superior Court judge awarded Pilates instructor and former Pasadena Star-News reporter Kathy Braidhill just more than a quarter of the damages requested in a complaint she filed last year against the city of Pasadena, a city code compliance officer and Mehran Baghgegian, the owner of a building she rented space from to open her Pilates studio.
In the end, the judge ruled against Baghgegian, but dismissed the city from Braidhill’s lawsuit.
Despite Braidhill never receiving written notice from the city prohibiting her from operating her business at that building because of a code compliance issue, Judge Bruce Mitchell agreed with the city and city Code Compliance Officer Sharon Gray and absolved the city of responsibility for the $15,413 that Braidhill poured into the business while awaiting word on her business license application.
The city argued, and Mitchell agreed, that one phone call from Gray to Braidhill was adequate notice of the building’s compliance problem. According to court documents, Gray argued that Braidhill understood the issue because she got into a bicycle accident after hearing the information. However, hospital documents show the accident actually happened several weeks after that phone call.
“There’s this regulatory vacuum in the city in which small business owners are trapped and fall prey,” said Braidhill. “They wind up paying a lot of money, the property owner gets the money, the city doesn’t do its job and doesn’t enforce its own laws, and we wind up having this really bad climate for small businesses.”
In October 2011, Baghgegian rented space at 55 Waverly Drive in Pasadena to Braidhill for her business, Studio K Pilates, without informing her that the only use permitted for that site was a warehouse.
On Oct. 14, 2011, Braidhill submitted an application with the city for a Code Compliance Certificate and a business license, according to court documents.
On Oct. 28, 2011, Gray denied Braidhill’s Code Compliance Certificate because the building did not have a Certificate of Occupancy. She called Braidhill that day and told her that her application was being denied, but Braidhill did not consider that “confusing” phone call to be proper notice.
“I remember asking her, ‘Why are you calling me if there’s a problem with the building?’” said Braidhill. “There was a lot of traffic and I couldn’t understand what she was really saying. It was very noisy.”
That call lasted 12 minutes, according to phone records provided by the city. Gray said she would write a letter that day explaining the situation, but she never sent it. Braidhill spent months calling Gray and the city, as well as going to City Hall in person, despite significant injuries she suffered in the accident on her bike, to find out the status of her business license application, unsuccessfully. She was told it wasn’t ready yet. She was not told that it had been denied.
“I sought out the information time and time again,” she said. “I did not get a message saying I needed to move out immediately. My impression was that I wasn’t supposed to do anything because I didn’t own the building and I didn’t receive a letter.”
In April 2012, Braidhill hired an attorney who had a meeting with Gray and received from her the letter dated Oct. 28, 2011. That’s when Braidhill said she first understood that she could not run her studio at that location, and had to uproot her business immediately having already invested thousands of dollars into it.
Gray stated in court documents that “the letter was not mailed due to an investigation concerning the status of the building.” In April 2012, Gray opened a code compliance case against Baghgegian regarding his use of the building for other than that of a warehouse. Braidhill’s attorney was told that Baghgegian had not complied with city rules regarding the 55 Waverly Drive property for more than a decade.
“How long does it take to bring a property owner into compliance?” asked Braidhill.
She contends that the city did not properly notify her that the building was out of compliance, which ended up costing her more than $15,000. Gray and the city argued in court papers that since Braidhill called Gray on Oct. 31, 2011 and told her during a one-minute conversation that the information provided to Braidhill during the Oct. 28, 2011 phone conversation was “so surprising that she had gotten into an accident on her bicycle,” she had therefore been properly notified. Braidhill said this was not true. She was actually hit by a tile truck on her bike on Nov. 10, not during the Oct. 28 phone call. Records from Huntington Hospital show that she was admitted on Nov. 10.
Then, during the hearing on Jan. 15, Braidhill claimed that Gray told her in the Alhambra Courthouse hallway that Braidhill told her about the bike accident during a phone call on Nov. 16, a different date than she argued in court papers. However, according to the city’s phone records, that phone call was placed by Sgt. Bruce George, the Pasadena police officer who responded to Braidhill’s accident, to Braidhill, not from Braidhill to Gray. It is unknown how Gray actually found out about the accident.
Gray, who retired last month, referred all questions to Chief Assistant City Attorney Javan Rad.
“The declaration says what it says, and Sharon Gray testified consistent to what her declaration said,” Rad told the Weekly after the discrepancy about the accident was pointed out to him. “The real date that matters here is on Oct. 28 [Braidhill] was given notice that her code compliance certificate was denied. It’s a matter of following the rules.”
“I don’t know how an imaginary bike accident serves as a legal notice,” Braidhill said. “I sued the city because they didn’t send me the letter informing me that the property didn’t have a Certificate of Occupancy until I hired an attorney to extract it from them.”
Either way, the judge sided with the city, saying it wasn’t the city’s fault that it was noisy when Gray called to inform her that her application was being denied. The judge agreed with the city that the issue was between Braidhill and Baghgegian, who was ordered to pay her the settlement amount of $4,201 by Feb. 15 or appeal the decision. Braidhill said the settlement amount is nowhere near how much money she lost because of this incident.
“I felt as though the city took advantage of the fact that I had been the victim of a horrible accident and turned it against me in order to re-victimize me and wants to pass that off as ‘litigation,’” she said.
She recently opened another studio at Hill Avenue and Walnut Street called Pilates Pasadena.
“I’m fighting on, so to speak,” she said, “despite being ground by the boot heel of the city and the property owner. The city can do a better job of taking care of these property owners and actually notifying small business owners. I’m not interested in suing Gray personally, but if the city wants to encourage a small business climate and allow us to make a living and not get sucked in by these property owners who are out to deceive people, we need protection.”
Last week, Braidhill received a photocopy of the mediation confidentiality agreement in the mail from the office of the City Attorney/City Prosecutor, without any note or letter. She interpreted this as “ham-handed intimidation” by the city, and wrote a letter to her City Council representative, Councilman Terry Tornek. Tornek said he would comment after receiving the letter, which he had not yet seen.
“As a proud, longtime resident of Pasadena and a proud small business owner, I am ashamed at the conduct of the city,” she said. “I am embarrassed that the city concocted an odd down-the-rabbit-hole story instead of conducting itself honorably and telling the truth. I would like, perhaps, to get my $109.40 (business license application fee) back, if not the nearly $3,000 in legal fees to extract the letter I was promised and never received. And to conduct a formal review of this matter to determine the truth of what happened so that others hoping to start a small business don’t have to suffer thousands of dollars in losses like I did as a result of the city’s double standard. And yes, I would like the city to do me the courtesy, as I have in done in its forms and applications, to receive an answer in writing.”