Tech

Uber Executive Who Wanted To Investigate Journalists Went To War With His Landlord Too

A judge tossed Emil Michael's case out of court, but he threatened to call in "my friend the Chief of Police." The SFPD is not amused.

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The Uber executive who made headlines last month after suggesting the company investigate journalists is locked in a bitter struggle with the landlord of his $9,500-a-month San Francisco condominium. Their dispute, much of which is laid out in court records, reveals the take-no-prisoners style of the executive, Senior Vice President of Business Emil Michael, whose company is known for its aggressiveness.

At one point last year, Michael went to court to try to get a restraining order on his landlord, tech industry lawyer John Danforth. The judge threw out Michael's case, chastising it as "borderline frivolous." But the squabble didn't end. In a series of emails provided by Danforth to BuzzFeed News, Michael called Danforth a "racist asshole" and "slumlord." Michael even threatened to call in support from "my friend the Chief of Police of SF."

Danforth, for his part, wrote a member of Uber's board, warning that Michael's behavior could harm the transit giant.

"My experience of Emil Michael as a tenant accords very closely with recent reports of him in the press as an Uber executive," Danforth told BuzzFeed News.

Michael did not respond to questions about the conflict sent to his personal email. A spokeswoman for Uber, Nairi Hourdajian, also did not respond to questions.

The dispute between Michael and his landlord centers on a 2,000-square-foot Pacific Heights condo overlooking Alta Plaza Park for which Michael signed a $9,500 lease in June 2012 (the rent has since been raised to $13,335). The three bedroom, two bathroom condo was renovated in 2008 and boasts luxury finishes, a parking space, a balcony, and access to a landscaped private garden complete with a remote-control hot tub.

According to extensive court documents obtained by BuzzFeed News from the San Francisco Superior Court, Michael's relationship with his landlord began to sour in June of last year, when Michael made a run-of-the-mill request that Danforth repair the bathroom. But it quickly heated up. When Danforth entered the apartment to make the repair, he discovered that Michael had painted the walls after having been denied permission to do so, allegedly a violation of the lease. Danforth also walked to the apartment's balcony to look down at the garden and at a repair that had been previously made to the hot tub. Michael took issue with the visit, and said Danforth had on occasion entered areas where repairs weren't necessary, including his bedroom.

Two months later, on Aug. 30, Michael picked up a baseball bat to confront a "stranger" in the garden. The woman turned out to be the gardener. "I am at home this morning [sic] and the gardener appeared in the backyard," Michael wrote in an email to Danforth that afternoon. "You provided no notice for this...If this happens again, I will be forced to call the police."

That same day, Michael also wrote a painstakingly detailed letter listing his grievances with Danforth and indicating he'd be taking legal action. In the letter, he also claimed Danforth "violated [his] human rights," and was "racist" (Michael is an Egyptian immigrant), and that he had filed a discrimination complaint against him with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission (requests to the commission to confirm the complaint went unanswered). The letter concluded with Michael, a former executive at the social media ranking company Klout, threatening to amplify the dispute online. "Finally, I want to be clear that I am free to post to my tens of thousands of social media followers the true facts regarding your entry into parts of my apartment…" By the next day, he had also begun blocking Danforth's emails.

In San Francisco's tight and pricey real estate market, such disputes are not uncommon. But six days later, Michael filed a petition in San Francisco Superior Court for a restraining order against Danforth, the sort of order people seek when they are being stalked or fear physical harm. "I am under constant emotional duress that a stranger can enter my apartment without notice requiring me to defend myself posing constant fear and a dangerous situation," Michael wrote. "Also, the landlord is invading my privacy and ruining my relationship with my significant other." Danforth responded to the petition on Sept. 24, calling Michael's statements "demonstrably false."

After attempting mediation, the two men appeared in court for a hearing on Sept. 27, 2013. The judge, Donald J. Sullivan, made his doubts about the case clear from the beginning. "I will tell you here at the very outset that this clearly seems to me to be a landlord-tenant dispute," he said. "And the question is, is it more than that?"

During the hearing, Michael described the "immense stress" the dispute had caused him. "I am entitled to the sanctity of my home," he said. Later in the hearing, Danforth responded, saying, "He never said there has a been a pattern of this, which is what he swore under oath in his declaration. And he never said that he was under fear that somebody was going to come into the apartment, which has never happened."

Sullivan, the judge, reacted harshly to Michael, tossing the case out of court and dismissing it with prejudice, meaning that Michael can never file another claim for the same case.

"Having listened to all of the evidence, I'm finding that this is a borderline frivolous case," he said, according to the court transcript. "It doesn't even come close to meeting the statutory standards of by clear and convincing evidence."

At the end of the hearing, Sullivan dissolved a temporary restraining order against Danforth and denied a permanent one. "You folks can can take your matter down to Department 501 [Housing Court]," he concluded. "It either can be a wrongful eviction or wrongful termination or go over to the San Francisco Rent Control Board and talk to them. But please do not come back here. Okay. Thank you."

Michael chose not to move after the September litigation. Rather, he and Danforth's relationship continued to deteriorate in the following months, as the two men sparred in numerous emails. Parts of their correspondence were available in public documents filed with the superior court and rent board, while others were provided to BuzzFeed News by Danforth. The correspondence available does not include every message the men exchanged. Still, the messages show that Michael's tone was frequently belligerent.

"I am so glad that you denied that I have sole and exclusive use of the property. It is your typical harassment, retaliation, racist activity that you use with me," Michael wrote in a Nov. 6 email. The message was in response to a notification that a tree would be replaced in the garden. "On the other hand, if you trespass on my property, I will have you arrested and my friend the Chief of Police of SF will make sure of it," Michael continued.

A San Francisco Police spokesman disputed the idea that the chief of police, Gregory Suhr, would ever get involved in such a dispute. "Obviously, what Mr. Michael types in his emails is out of our control," spokesperson Albie Esparza told BuzzFeed News after learning of the email. "But I can guarantee you that the chief himself will not be getting involved in any civil disputes or civil investigation."

In another particularly protracted exchange in March, Michael wrote, "I was hoping you were not still dealing with your mental health issues. But, I guess given that you are a patent troll and a slumlord, you cannot help yourself."

Danforth later responded: "I am very sorry that you have elected to continue the same tone and with the same disregard for the facts and the law as I saw from you last year."

A few days later, Danforth suggested Michael might want to start looking for a new place. "I can stay in the apartment as long as I want, asshole," Michael responded in an email on March 10. "Regardless, this is good evidence of your intent, racist asshole."

Danforth terminated the Uber executive's lease in April, two months before it was to expire. The notice Danforth filed with the San Francisco Rent Board called out Michael's "abusive and insulting language," as well as his refusal to cooperate with repair and maintenance efforts.

Despite Michael's moving out, the dispute still remains unresolved.

Last month, BuzzFeed News reported that Michael floated the idea of hiring opposition researchers to investigate journalists, and in particular to spread claims about the private life of one Uber critic. Michael apologized, and Uber denied that the plan had any connection to Uber's actual plans.

Later, BuzzFeed News revealed that Uber had sought to hire an experienced opposition researcher to "weaponize" information for use against its industry competitors.

In the wake of those stories, Danforth wrote to an Uber board member — he declined to name which one — regarding his dispute with Michael and included examples of their emails. "These emails from Mr. Michael...,[are] pretty clear evidence of the kind of character Uber seems to value," Danforth wrote to the board member, according to an email he showed BuzzFeed News. (He blacked out the recipient's name in the email; an Uber official confirmed that Danforth had contacted a board member.) "Unwise for the guy Uber calls 'the face of Uber to its customers and partners globally.'"

Within hours, Danforth's attorney, Nils Rosenquest, received a letter from Michael's attorney, Dave Crow, demanding further mediation, according to a copy of the email provided by Danforth.

"I had prepared the letter before I received a disturbing email from Mr. Michael regarding an email Mr. Danforth sent to ... a member of the Board of Directors of Uber," Crow wrote. (Danforth says he also attempted to contact a second board member via LinkedIn, though he's unsure of whether that message went through.)

According to the letter, dated Nov. 24, Michael is threatening to sue Danforth for just over $100,000 in damages related to the dispute, including "breach of contract," "attorney fees," and "emotional distress." He also complains that Danforth has not fully refunded his security deposit.

Johana Bhuiyan contributed reporting to this story.

Anita Badejo is an associate features editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Anita Badejo at anita.badejo@buzzfeed.com.

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