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Trash is seen at a property owned by Cardinal Group Management in 2021. (Provided by Brandon Smith)

Almost two years after residents of Mint Urban Infinity sued to have access to reliable elevators and air conditioning in their apartment buildings, four renters of the Glendale complex were in court Thursday, asking a Denver District Court judge to certify them as a class to collectively sue their landlord Cardinal Group Management.

The residents have been filing complaints for years about issues such as cockroaches and bed bug infestations, overflowing trash, backed up plumbing systems, broken elevators and malfunctioning door locks. Now they’re asking to be reimbursed for illegal move-out fees deducted from their security deposits, for unlawful move-in fees of more than $185 each, and for pest-control services and attorney’s fees.

The main plaintiffs — Brandon Smith, Kendra Raylene Keely, Lynette Rhodes and Shivani Mohan — are also asking the landlord to compensate them and other residents for violations of the state warranty of habitability law and for failing to remediate the problems they repeatedly reported.

It’s unclear when Judge Martin Egelhoff will rule on whether the case will proceed as a class action or as individual lawsuits. 

Apartment complexes owned by Cardinal Group Management are seen on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, in Glendale. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Before court adjourned, Egelhoff said he didn’t understand why the case needed to be class-action certified, but that he would review the evidence presented Thursday and rule as swiftly as possible. The four main plaintiffs who testified Thursday were impacted differently, Egelhoff and defense attorney Derek Anderson said. For example, some residents had cockroach infestations while others had plumbing issues.

Anderson said the four main plaintiffs could not be class-action representatives because their experiences would not be typical of the entire class and that the court would have to interview all residents. “That just ignores the entire law on class-action lawsuits,” he said.

Steven Woodrow, an attorney for the residents, said ultimately, all Mint Urban Infinity residents suffered because the landlord was negligent and failed to make repairs and maintain a habitable living space.

“These are real problems that we are talking about here,” Woodrow said. “They were cited by government agencies for how hot it was during the summer. That’s a health and safety issue. Dangerous and scary elevators are a health and safety issue. And to say that those common elements can only be actionable under the warranty of habitability statute on an individualized basis (is unfair).”

Further, he said, the case should be tried as a class action because it’s not economically feasible to bring claims on an individual basis. The plaintiffs don’t have enough money to sue individually, even if they could find lawyers willing to take cases likely to yield only small awards if they win, Woodrow said. 

“Everyone in this instance at (Mint Urban Infinity) has the same legal qualm. They all overpaid for their units,” Woodrow said. “Denying certification tells the plaintiffs and the other tenants that landlords can have serious, systemic issues like dangerous and scary elevators, sweltering heat due to broken ACs, and cockroaches, and get off and only face small-dollar claims, and likely never be caught because it’s not financially, economically viable.”

One of Denver’s largest landlords to low-income renters, Cardinal Group Management & Advisory — and complex owners Glendale Properties I and Glendale Properties II — are accused of leaving residents struggling with cockroach and bed bug infestations, sewage problems, no hot water, broken air conditioning systems while many worked from home during the summer amid the pandemic, faulty heating during the winter, broken door locks and allowing many other unsafe and unsanitary living conditions to go unaddressed, according to the original lawsuit filed in October 2021.

Cardinal Group has allegedly failed to remedy serious maintenance issues at Mint Urban Infinity in a timely manner, even after repeated requests from residents for maintenance, violating state law and their contractual obligations, attorneys said.

The nine-building complex with more than 550 units is just south of Glendale’s busy shopping district on South Colorado Boulevard. 

In news stories detailing their complaints, residents cited numerous concerns, including: no air conditioning for almost two months during a summer heatwave and wildfire season. 

Residents have also complained about insect infestations, sewage backing up into their bathtubs and dishwashers, black mold, damaged walls, leaky pipes, unsafe laundry facilities, overflowing communal garbage areas in and outside the building, broken or missing locks to doors leading into the building, allowing for trespassing.

People who weren’t residents had easy access and entered the building and stole packages. On several occasions, people walked into the unsecured building and may have urinated or defecated inside the complex. 

Fire alarms were broken and did not alert people when smoke had filled hallways on a few occasions from unsafe laundry rooms. Doors were missing frames, vandalism was prevalent and swimming pools on the property weren’t maintained and remained unusable, plaintiffs said during testimony in court Thursday.

Cockroaches stains and smear marks are seen at a property owned by Cardinal Group Management in 2021. (Courtesy photo/Brandon Smith)

Since 2018, there have been at least 64 elevator rescues or fires, making life difficult for older adult renters and people with disabilities in the complex, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges residents were unable to move out of the complex because Cardinal Management charges a fee equal to two month’s rent if renters decide to terminate their lease early. 

Cardinal Group Management did not respond to two requests for comment on Thursday. 

However, in court documents, attorneys wrote that Cardinal Group worked diligently to manage the antiquated and problematic 1970s property during the COVID-19 pandemic amid staffing and supply shortages.

The only issue in the complaint that could possibly be characterized as a problem under warranty of habitability law is the “limited instance” of a lack of hot water in one building for one week in July, 2021, caused by work being done by an outside utility company, defense attorneys wrote.

Attorneys also wrote that Cardinal Group Management is an award-winning organization and was ranked one of the top 50 multifamily property managers by the National Multifamily Housing Council in 2021 and 2022. 

Since the lawsuit was filed in October 2021, at least three people have reached out to the Colorado Sun to complain about problems at other properties managed by Cardinal Group and in hopes of reaching leaders at the organization.

The warranty of habitability has existed for years and was expanded in 2018 to include mold as a violation of the law.

“But it clearly doesn’t stop a landlord,” said Therese Kerr, contract investigator for 9to5 Colorado, a Denver nonprofit that helped organize Mint Urban Infinity residents.

“They didn’t care,” she said of Cardinal Group. “Why didn’t they care? Because if four people come and complain, they can pay them off, and that’s not that big of a deal. They save more money just not taking care of the property. It’s in their financial interest just to neglect it … But when you’re going to be on the hook for over 1,000 people, it’s a much bigger deal.”

The hearing Thursday was also of particular public interest given the recent passage of House Bill 1095, she said, which prohibits class action waivers and other predatory lease provisions. The law is still awaiting the governor’s signature. 9to5 advocated for the passage of the bill after observing the emergence of waivers in residential lease agreements, sometimes more than 50 pages in length, which caused residents to unknowingly give up their right to join a class action lawsuit. In cases like this, Kerr said, class actions are essential to holding landlords accountable and ensuring that every impacted resident has access to the justice system.

Woodrow, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, specializes in class-action lawsuits and is also a state representative. He was a prime sponsor of the bill.

Brandon Smith, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Cardinal Group Management, poses for a portrait on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, in Denver. Smith, who moved into Mint Urban in Glendale in April 2021, has gathered complaints and evidence of unfit living conditions from over 180 tenants in surrounding properties. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Brandon Smith, who lived at Mint Urban Infinity for about a year and split a $1,508 monthly rent fee with one roommate, said filing the lawsuit was the only way he could get the landlord’s attention.

On a few occasions when residents were able to contact the landlord, they were given “different excuses,” Smith said, or the landlord would say they hadn’t yet heard about the issue and would often never remediate it.

He said in court Thursday that he “canvassed” the complex and spoke to hundreds of residents individually numerous times and held many public meetings and gathered the same number of documents to help file the lawsuit. People cried when they realized they were not the only ones facing habitability issues, he said in court.

“I wanted to hear people’s stories and I consistently heard the same or worse problems,” he said in court on Thursday.

A few hours after the hearing, Smith said he moved out of Mint Urban Infinity in late April 2022. He waited until the end of his lease because if he had left early, he would have had to pay a two-month penalty, totaling $3,016. When property managers offered him an opportunity to break his lease, they said they’d waive the fee, but that he would then have to sign a waiver saying he wouldn’t take legal action or seek monetary damages.

Since he moved out, Smith got a promotion and found a new place to live in Capitol Hill, he said. 

“Stress levels have plummeted since moving out of Mint,” he said. “I’m doing phenomenally better.”

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Tatiana FlowersEquity and general assignment reporter

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, intense exercise, working as a local DJ, and live music...