A Kansas City tenant fights back and wins rare victory against landlord who tried to evict her
At the home she rented on East 83rd Street, Sabrina Davis' microwave burned up, she got shocked when using the garbage disposal and was also shocked while unplugging a replacement microwave oven.
A Kansas City landlord with a habit of filing eviction complaints and counting on tenants not to show up in court didn’t count on one of them fighting back.
And in a rare instance of a tenant winning a complete victory, a Jackson County judge has ordered the landlord to pay back 15 months of rental payments to the tenant plus interest and attorney’s fees — an amount totaling more than $17,000.
The underlying facts were especially egregious – the landlord neglected extensive electrical and plumbing repairs – but a lawyer who represented the tenant said the case shows that tenants are not defenseless when faced with a landlord who ignores safety issues.
“Landlords have to provide safe and sanitary homes, and if you’re a consumer, a tenant, you have protection under the MMPA (Missouri Merchandising Protection Act),” said Andrea Knernschield, who represented the tenant, Sabrina Davis. “ … She gave this landlord every opportunity to listen to her and make things right. He just disregarded his own tenant and leased out an unsafe, fire hazard home.”
Greg Leyh, Knernschield’s partner, said the judgment underscores that even as evictions begin to pick up again after the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of the Biden administration's eviction moratorium , "there are defenses to massive displacement of tenants, particularly if the tenant is part of a larger complex.”
In this case, Davis had rented a small home at 1813 E. 83rd St. in south Kansas City for $575 a month after the landlord, Dana K. Winters, assured her that the electric bill was around $100 a month. Almost immediately after she moved into the house in December 2019, her microwave burned up, she got shocked when using the garbage disposal while washing dishes and was shocked while unplugging a replacement microwave oven, according to the judge's findings. Periodically the house's lights would blink on and off.
In February and March 2020, “Ms. Davis began receiving electric bills that were far more than the $100 per month she’d been quoted by Mr. Winters,” Associate Circuit Judge Mary Frances Weir found.
In March, Davis contacted an electrical contractor to inspect the house. The contractor found a host of serious issues, including a burnt electrical panel that was arcing in many places, unprotected wires, burnt out breakers, improper grounding of the electric panel to the main water line and improper grounding of the electrical outlets.
Davis routinely complained to Winters that the house was unsafe and unfit to live in, but he largely ignored her, Weir found.
Davis eventually contacted Kansas City’s Healthy Homes rental inspection program, which dispatched an inspector in April 2021. The inspector found numerous code violations, including an inoperable smoke alarm, a leaking bathroom sink, problems with the kitchen sink backing up and many of the same electrical issues found by the electrical contractor.
Healthy Homes notified Winters that repairs needed to be completed within 10 days. But when it re-inspected the house in May, no repairs had been made.
In January 2021, Winters sued Davis, seeking to evict her. Even as the case was pending in August, he changed the locks on the door, removed the thermostat, removed the mailbox and left a note not to enter the house, according to the judge’s findings.
“The actions of Mr. Winters amount to an unlawful self-help eviction,” Judge Weir wrote.
What Winters didn’t count on was that Davis would fight back, retaining attorneys who filed a countersuit against Winters. Davis, who is 62 and on disability owing to degenerative bone disease, had become active with the tenants’ rights group KC Tenants after a run-in with another landlord, K.M.-T.E.H. Realty. And she was no longer willing to take things lying down.
“Dana Winters has been renting properties in Kansas City since 1993 and every person that he’s rented to he’s evicted,” Davis told KCUR in a phone interview. “And those evictions come from people just saying, ‘I’ve had it. I can’t live in this property. It’s so bad I’m just going to pack up and leave.’ And they wind up leaving, and then he sues them for breaking their lease.”
Reached by phone at his home, Winters vehemently denied that the house Davis rented had any electrical issues. He said he moved to evict Davis because she had not paid her rent.
“She owed me over a $1,000 in rent, $4,000 as a matter of fact,” Winters said.
“She didn’t have any problems until I filed eviction. I filed eviction first. Then she called to see me. Then she called the inspector and got a lawyer. Well, I was trying to get her out of there for a year for nonpayment of rent. I was trying to get her out of my house and she would not leave,” Winters said.
Winters, who said he was unaware of the judge’s ruling until informed by a reporter, vowed to pursue the matter.
“It’s false,” he said. “Just ridiculous. And I’m going to appeal.”
Winters' attorney did not return a call seeking comment.
Winters’ claim that Davis didn’t pay her rent is at odds with the judge’s ruling, which found that Davis was entitled to recover the rent she paid from January 2020 through March 2021, or a total of $8,050. The judge also ordered Winters to return Davis’ security deposit of $1,150 and pay her attorney’s fees. Earlier in the case, she ordered him to pay $1,361 in attorney’s fees and costs after Winters failed to respond to discovery requests.
Court records show that Winters has filed dozens of eviction complaints over the years. Some were dismissed after he failed to prosecute them. More often, he obtained default judgments against tenants who didn’t show up to defend themselves.
Mason Andrew Kilpatrick, a community organizer with KC Tenants who helped Davis, said that landlords like Winters manage to flout code regulations “because they know they can get away with it.”
“They know there aren’t that many lawyers in Kansas City who actually defend and represent tenants,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s actually really hard to find lawyers for so many tenants and a lot of tenants can’t afford it.”
The vast majority of landlords are represented by legal counsel in eviction actions, but fewer than 10% of tenants are, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In cities that have enacted right-to-counsel measures for tenants, Kilpatrick said eviction rates have gone down dramatically.
“So when we start to see this precedent of what actually happens when a tenant has a lawyer having their back, walking them through that process and calling out landlords for their egregious behaviors, I think you start to see evictions decrease,” he said.
Davis said she never doubted she would prevail.
“A lot of (tenants) just don’t know how to fight,” she said. “They don’t know which way to turn. Their best way to deal with the situation is to just leave, just go. And guess what? That renter is not going to show up in court. And he’s just going to win.”
“But I want to go further than just getting my deposit back. I want to get this dude because he’s no good. I want to make a stand. I want to hurt this guy as bad as he’s trying to hurt me.”
This story is part of a series on housing issues in the Kansas City region produced by the KC Media Collective, an initiative designed to support and enhance local journalism. Members of the KC Media Collective include KCUR 89.3, American Public Square, Kansas City PBS/Flatland, Missouri Business Alert, Startland News and The Kansas City Beacon.