LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — When Rebecca Gandara thumbed through her mail one day last month, she saw a letter from Chase Bank – her mortgage company – but something did not seem right. The letter was a preprinted notice that she was being sued; it wasn’t signed and did not seem to Gandara to be legitimate.
“At first, I thought it was a scam,” Gandara said. “But when I called the attorney [for Chase], he didn’t give me any information.”
So Gandara headed to the Eighth Judicial District Court of Clark County, where she found out she is in fact a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the trash company, Republic Services. Not only was Republic seeking about $10,000 in overdue payments, but they were seeking to file a lien and threatening foreclosure.
Suddenly, the specter of losing her home seemed very real to Gandara.
“I could be on the street right now,” she said.
Indeed, Gandara remains safely in her home in Henderson, which she’s owned for some 26 years. And she filed an answer in District Court with nine defenses, with expiration of the statute of limitations and fraud among them.
“I cannot believe anything Republic Services says, and I can’t believe anything that Republic Service attorney says,” Gandara said. She says the attorneys – Donald Williams and Drew Starbuck of the aptly-named Williams Starbuck in downtown Las Vegas, cannot – or will not – provide her with any records of her overdue payments and never served her a copy of the complaint.
“I said, ‘Tell me the truth. Did you mail me the summons? Because I never received it,’ ” Gandara told the 8 News Now Investigators.
Gandara continued: “They won’t show me records.”
Starbuck did not return a phone call seeking comment. Instead, Williams called and said he couldn’t speak about ongoing litigation. However, he did acknowledge that Republic Services has made a “business decision” to hold delinquent homeowners responsible for their unpaid garbage bills. Williams noted that Republic still has an obligation under their franchise agreement with Clark County – which in fact grants Republic the authority to seek liens and foreclose in cases like this – to pick up trash no matter how much Republic is owed on a particular bill.
To that end, Republic Services gave the 8 News Now Investigators a written statement.
“Republic Services takes pride in serving the residents and businesses of Southern Nevada,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, there are times when customers’ accounts become overdue to the point that Republic must exercise its authority to impose a property lien in order to ensure eventual payment for the services rendered. At this time and due to pending litigation, we are unable to respond further to your specific inquiry.”
Peter Aldous, a consumer rights staff attorney at Legal Aid of Southern Nevada told the 8 News Now Investigators that Republic Services is actually doing the public a disservice. Aldous said the Nevada state statute authorizing Republic the power to foreclose – Senate Bill 354, which passed both the state senate and assembly unanimously in 2005 — is being abused.
“I don’t think that at the time the legislators were envisioning little old ladies who owned their homes outright, getting threatened with foreclosure,” Aldous said.
Legislators may also not have been expecting Republic’s lawyers to play hardball to the extent they are. The 8 News Now Investigators obtained video and audio recordings of one case from 2020 in which the defendant, the owner of a home on Sanford Court in the Las Vegas metro area, paid Republic Services his overdue balance without consulting Starbuck or the court.
“I saw Republic Service,” the defendant said in court in 2021. “That’s who’s suing me. So I just went right to the source.”
But Starbuck fought the defendant for fees and costs, asking district court Judge Mark Denton for some $4,207.53 in legal fees.
Denton questioned Starbuck over the Bluejeans electronic court interface – because all hearings were being held remotely due to COVID.
“My understanding of what you’ve stated in the countermotion is that you accept the notion that he’s paid the underlying obligation but you’re still seeking attorney’s fees and costs, is that right?” Denton asked.
“That’s right,” Starbuck answered.
Denton ultimately awarded Starbuck $1,500 in legal fees and the $891.60 in other costs he was seeking from that defendant.
“There’s no negotiating with them,” Aldous said, unless the homeowner being sued agrees to a payment plan he or she usually cannot afford. “There is only – beyond that small amount of negotiation that they’ll enter into – that and then when somebody responds in court to the lawsuit, the amount gets bigger because they’re adding on all their attorneys fees and they’re not backing down in court and trying to settle.”
The irony, according to Nevada state law, is that Republic Services is entitled to payment on any and all of these unpaid garbage bills regardless of whether they ever sue. Their “perpetual lien,” as the statute calls it, insists that Republic Services be paid at the time and place of any homeowner refinancing their mortgage or selling their home.
“Payment is certain,” Aldous said.