U.S. News

06.28.14

When Mrs. Doubtfire Won’t Leave

A California family is struggling to evict their now-fired live-in nanny—and tenancy laws are on her side. How to protect against a nightmare scenario in your own home.

The houseguest from hell has been immortalized numerous times on film and television. But one California couple’s saga is so bizarre that Hollywood and even Lifetime television would probably dub it unbelievable. If the Bracamonte family’s story were being pitched as a movie, it might be described as Mary Poppins meets Pacific Heights, the thriller in which a tenant turns one couple’s dream home into a nightmare.

According to Marcella and Ralph Bracamonte, they hired Diane Stretton as a nanny to care for the couple’s three children in exchange for room and board. After a few weeks of work, they claim she stopped working and has also refused to move out. The story has sent chills up the spine of anyone who has ever hired live-in help and raised questions about the rights of homeowners in such situations.

The legal experts who spoke with The Daily Beast explained that once a person is living in your home, having them removed immediately is virtually impossible unless they choose to leave voluntarily.

“In New York City, it’s a Class A misdemeanor to unlawfully evict any person who has been occupying a dwelling unit for more than 30 days,” said New York-based tenants attorney Catharine Grad. That means that if a New York-based family were to have a falling out with a nanny or housekeeper and changed the locks after that person declined to leave, the family would be in trouble, not the employee. Attorney Marc Eisenhart, who has taught courses on eviction law, said that unfortunately the Bracamonte family is in for a potentially long and bumpy ride. “Before you can even file a lawsuit, you have to serve her with a notice. The notice can be three days, 30 days, 60 days, or 90 days. It depends on the type of tenant and the reason for evicting.” It also depends on the length of the tenant’s residence.

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At least 60 days’ notice is required if the tenant has been residing there more than a year. Thirty days is required if it has been less than a year and only three days is required if a person violated the terms of the tenancy. In this case, an argument could be made that she violated it when she stopped performing her nanny duties. But the bad news for the family is even upon being served she has a right to appeal—a process that alone can last more than a month. Though technically she is supposed to pay rent should such an appeals process begin, in this case given her history, and the agreement her employment granted her room and board, that is unlikely.

The bottom line, according to Eisenhart: The Bracamontes are likely facing a two-month battle.

If someone is willing to accept simply room and board for the difficult job of rearing children, “That’s the first tipoff that someone’s really desperate for a place to live.”

It could even be longer. Attorney Joseph Tobener, a California-based tenants rights attorney, said that in some cases in which housing is considered a part of a payment package for service, employers have found themselves unwittingly in violation of minimum-wage laws. In a number of cases with live-in help, “Usually the landlord is not paying them enough and valuing the housing more than what’s allowed.” He explained, “They can only credit against the minimum wage $451 of the housing. So she [Stretton] may have a wage claim.”

Though Stretton has been labeled a “vexatious litigant”— meaning she has officially been dubbed a nuisance by the court—none of the legal experts interviewed said they believed that tenant laws should be changed or improved to protect homeowners like the Bracamontes.

“Do you want a police force to be able to remove you, or do you want due process?” Tobener asked in response to a question about changing current statutes. Grad said that while theoretically future employers could add clauses to employment agreements that would impose financial penalties on a live-in employee that did not vacate the premises in a certain time frame upon termination, such protections would have little impact. “I don’t really think when push comes to shove it would make any difference. The law does not just let you lock somebody out,” she said.

“I’m sure you could sit down and think of all sorts of remedies you could put into the employment agreement to protect you, but it’s not going to get you out from under the fact that you can’t evict somebody without court process.”

Eisenhart proposed that the only real protection is due diligence. “If there’s a takeaway from this, it would be if you bring someone into your home, get good references, do a little background check, all those things.”

Daryl Camarillo, founder of California-based placement agency Stanford Park Nannies, echoed that sentiment. “You absolutely have to do background checks. If they had, they would have found the information that is now wreaking havoc on their lives.” She added, “I’m amazed at how few families, when they hire on their own, consider background checks—and for a good background check you might spend a couple of hundred dollars. But think of the tradeoff of having this person alone with your children unsupervised.

“What happens is when people try to recruit using sources like Craigslist or Care.com, they try to connect with someone who they feel is trustworthy, but they don’t take the necessary steps to prove this person is trustworthy.” (The Bracamontes connected with Stretton on Craigslist.)

Camarillo also cautioned families about other clues that may be worth further examination before allowing someone into your home. She said if someone is willing to accept simply room and board for the difficult job of rearing children, “Already it seems like it’s not a very professional arrangement. That’s the first tipoff that someone’s really desperate for a place to live.” Which again, is why background checks and references are essential.

Eisenhart, who has been a landlord himself, said, “I advise landlords all the time. When you get an applicant for a tenant in this day and age, it’s not too difficult to look people up.”

He then asked, “Have you seen that movie Pacific Heights?”