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Court: South Berkeley House a Nuisance By J. DOUGLASALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday January 13, 2006

Alameda County Court Commissioner Jon Rantzman this week awarded $5,000 apiece to 14 South Berkeley residents who had sued neighbor Lenora Moore in Small Claims Court, arguing that she allowed family members to operate a drug house out of the premises. 

Rantzman ruled that the 75-year-old Moore “maintained and continues to maintain a nuisance at her property at 1610 Oregon Street.” 

The $70,000 judgment was a victory for the plaintiffs. Collecting on it, however, will be another matter. 

“We’re extremely gratified and happy about the outcome,” plaintiff Paul Rauber said by telephone. “Mrs. Moore has now been held accountable for the terrific grief and disruption she and her family caused our neighborhood because of their activities.” 

And Grace Neufeld, whose Neighborhood Solutions organization guided the neighbors through the Small Claims process—though did not represent them in court—said, “We’re very pleased by the outcome. We think the judge, in his ruling, really laid out what our clients presented in the courtroom. We now hope the defendant will take responsibility for these problems.” 

Berkeley paralegal Leo Stegman, who represented Moore in the Small Claims proceeding, was on leave from his job with the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley a nd was not available for comment. Stegman represented Moore on his own time, and not in connection with his law center employment. 

Berkeley attorney Osha Neumann, who did not represent Moore but provided moral support for her during the proceedings, call ed the decision “sad, but not surprising.” 

“I’m afraid it’s not going to solve anything,” he said. “It’s going to make Lenora Moore’s life harder without making anything better for the neighbors. There’s more than enough victims to go around here. Lenora is a victim. The plaintiffs are victims, too.” 

Neumann said that he hoped the small claims court decision “doesn’t become a precedent on how we deal with our social problems. There are some instances where this type of action is appropriate, against a l arge slumlord, for example, but not against someone like Lenora Moore.” 

In two days of court testimony late last year, neighbors presented evidence that Moore’s Oregon Street home was a hub of South Berkeley drug dealing activity, with several of Moore’s children and grandchildren serving as the leaders and operators in a drug gang. Neighbors complained of frequent violence, noise, drug paraphernalia left on sidewalks and in yards, and other activities they say traced directly to Moore’s house. 

In her t estimony, Moore did not deny that some of her children and grandchildren were involved in the drug trade, but said that she was an elderly woman who worked every day and took care of an invalid husband, and was unable to control her offspring. 

That defen se was rejected by the court commissioner. 

Calling Moore’s defense “stale obfuscations,” Rantzman wrote that “in utter disregard of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, defendant continues to deny complicity or even knowledge of drug dealing out of her home, often by members of her immediate family, their friends or acquaintances, or harborage of drugs and related paraphernalia within her home.” 

He continued, “In a classic effort to shift responsibility to others, she argues the problem, if any, lies with the chronic social and economic conditions existing in southwest Berkeley; the police who do not do their job; the district attorney, who does not vigorously prosecute offenders; and even with the neighbors, who do not call the police when they see violations of restraining orders.” 

Rantzman said that “the failure, if any, of various public agencies to do more does not entitle the property owner to do less.” 

Asked if he expects to actually get the money awarded by the court from Moore, Rauber said, “Why not? We seem to be in this weird situation where everybody assumes that she won’t obey the law.” 

Rauber added, however, that “I’m not going to spend it yet.” 

Neufeld said that collection issues will be “discussed as a group” with the plaintiffs. S he said that small claims court collections “can be challenging; it depends upon the circumstances.” 

Neighborhood Solutions is associated with attorneys who, if necessary, will represent the plaintiffs at the collection or the appellate level, if that becomes necessary, Neufeld said. The organization’s standard fee for helping clients in such cases is 20 percent of the judgment, she said, but added that the money was not really the issue with the plaintiffs, however. 

“It’s not about the money for them,” Neufeld said. “They’re interested in getting a more peaceful area to live in.” 

Neufeld said she believed it was unlikely that Moore and her family would change their behavior, but suspected they would leave the neighborhood. “She can’t sustain herself i n that location,” she said. “And she’ll take her family with her.” 

Neumann said Neufeld’s statement only confirmed what he had been saying from the beginning, that the real aim of the court action was to force Moore out of her house. 

“This is only a victory if they can force her out of there,” he said, “and if they can’t force her out, what kind of victory is it? It won’t change what’s going on in the neighborhood, it will only make her life miserable, and it will make her more dependent on the members of her family.”