Couple still reeling over lost property

Residential Tenancies’ decision permitted the disposal of their belongings

Barb Sweet
Published on November 30, 2013
A St. John’s couple, Margaret (above) and Cecil Burke, felt comforted by two reports from the citizens representative office, but are still devastated at the loss of their furnishings and family mementos. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

A St. John’s couple felt comforted by two reports from the citizens’ representative office, but are still devastated at the loss of their furnishings and family mementoes.

“It’s been quite a time,” said Margaret Burke, who broke down during an interview with The Telegram.

“I have nothing to pass on to my children. I was an only child, very close to my family and (the landlord) had no problem taking my life. And just doing whatever he did.

“When we moved, we never even had a spoon.”

Burke said the couple rented an east-end home for several years after selling their own house to put them in a better financial position to aid her husband Cecil’s business endeavours.

But they claim they got fed up with the landlord’s inattention to needed repairs, the worst of which, they say, was mould that made their family sick. So they stopped paying rent.

And the landlord, who lives in Ontario, evicted them.

What happened next led the couple to file a complaint with citizens’ representative Barry Fleming.

Fleming filed two reports — one in 2012 and another this past March — that sided with the Burkes and said the Residential Tenancies Division should not have given the landlord permission to dispose of their property.

That permission was given in May 2012.

The Burkes claim some of the items were donated to the Salvation Army, while the whereabouts of valuable furniture and art is unknown.

Here’s what Fleming had to say about the case in his November 2012 report:

“On thoroughly reviewing this file, I have concluded that the actions of the department have led to considerable hardship for Mr. and Mrs. Burke. I believe that under the specific circumstances the authority to allow the disposal of the Burkes’ belongings did not exist.”

Fleming faulted Service NL, which oversees the division, with failing to make an adequate attempt to contact the Burkes. He requested the abandoned property policy be amended and suggested an apology be made to the Burkes.

And in March this year, Fleming found that the Residential Tenancies Division director’s decision to not proceed with an investigation sought by the Burkes was “contrary to the law, unreasonable, based wholly or partly on a mistake of law and wrong.”

The Burkes failed to appear at a hearing their landlord requested in December 2011.

Cecil Burke told The Telegram he was getting medical treatment for blood clots in his legs at the time and that’s why the couple weren’t there.

A trail of emails they provided to The Telegram suggests they had been trying to obtain their possessions.

But they were also told by the landlord’s lawyer their belongings would be released if they made arrangements to pay back rent.

According to Fleming’s report, the Burkes wrote to the department asking the Residential Tenancies Division to intervene in March 2012.

But the landlord applied to have the belongings disposed of, declaring they had been abandoned.

The Burkes claimed their property was worth more than $200,000 and that Residential Tenancies failed to verify a list and photos supplied by the landlord.

The department originally said it didn’t have that March 2012 letter from the Burkes, but acknowledged to Fleming’s office that it was subsequently located.

Fleming took no issue with the fact that the department issued orders in regard to the rental arrears and vacating the property, but said the repercussions of oversight of the letter, though unintentional, were significant.

As for the list Residential Tenancies received, Fleming said an objective person would have realized the furnishings and other items had value and, in fact, a Service NL employee had pointed that out and suggested an appraisal, which did not happen.

Even the director, in a letter granting the disposal, disagreed with the opinion that the items had no monetary value.

Cecil Burke said the couple didn’t take their items when they got the eviction notice because they have pets and were having trouble finding another place, so they had to spend some time in a hotel. Then they had trucks hired, he said, but couldn’t get permission to  get their belongings.

Burke admitted that keeping rent from the landlord to resolve what they felt were problems with the home was not the way to resolve the matter.

“We made a mistake, no doubt about it,” Cecil Burke said.

He said the couple left behind  not only valuable, but personal items, including business documents, birth certificates, marriage certificates and photos. They claim all of those unsellable items went to the landfill.

According to the Burkes, who recognized family heirloom china and other possessions for sale at a thrift store, they were told by the Salvation Army that the personal documents were kept for a day and sent to the dump.

The Telegram contacted the Salvation Army, which the Burkes said received some of their possessions, but the call was not returned.

This week, a Service NL spokeswoman said the department agrees with the citizen representative’s suggestion to amend the abandoned property policy to reflect its current practice of contacting all affected parties, wherever possible.

But the department said it feels the whole matter was adjudicated in good faith by the director of Residential Tenancies.

As for the second report, the department said the director’s decision was that he did not have legal jurisdiction to proceed with the complainant’s application to conduct an investigation.

The department has no authority to overturn or interfere with a decision of the director of Residential Tenancies, the spokeswoman said, adding if the complainant wants the decision overturned, he must go to court.

The Burkes say they have sought help since the last report, but cannot afford a lawyer.

“The citizen’s representative office are the only people who treated us with any respect. They kept me together. It’s been horrible,” Margaret Burke said.

Service NL is currently reviewing the Residential Tenancies Act for updating, has finished public consultations and is reviewing legislation from other jurisdictions.

But St. John’s South Liberal MHA Tom Osborne said the department has taken too long already on that review.

“Improvements could potentially help individuals such as this family,” Osborne said.

“The report on the consultations has been sitting on the minister’s desk for a year.”

Osborne said as a result of what happened, the family  has lost many things that can’t be replaced.

“Without proper regulation and oversight, that could happen to someone else,” he said.

While landlords need to have a remedy when rent isn’t paid, it can’t be punitive to the point that tenants lose everything, Osborne said.

Landlord Bruce Sheppard, reached in Ottawa, said he had no comment on the situation.