The legal theory for wrongful auction (and even denial of access) is “Conversion.”  You can get a good background on it, including its English common law origin at:

As applied to self-storage conversion runs the gamut from ‘denial of access’ to ‘wrongful auction.’  Denial of access is based on the 1704 English case, Baldwin v. Cole: , “The very denial of goods to him that has a right to demand them is an actual conversion, and not only evidence of it.” See, Baldwin v Cole (1704) 6 Mod Rep 212, 87 ER 964.  So – I’ll give you an actual example from a California class action.  The landlord ran all locations from a master computer program;  when the tenants were 6 days late – their gate code was suspended.  The California Self Storage Act requires the passage of 28 days and two separate notice letters prior to denial of access – so this was conversion.  (Denial of access without legal right).  So this defendant agreed to pay money to every California tenant who had been illegally denied access, paid attorney fees, and promised to obey the law going forward.

I call gate code invalidation “bullying” conversion – like sending “Guido” to put some pressure on a debtor.  Illegal but too often unpunished.  The more serious area, the one which focuses on, is the loss and destruction of property which is being glamorized in the “Storage Wars” and copy-cat entertainment shows.

Auctions conducted outside the bounds of a state’s lien law are conversion.  Remedies for conversion are very potent because the law was set up to protect the cargo of the British merchants – ironic this ancient rich man’s law has trinkled down to help 2013 self-storage tenants.

We find that self-storage landlords approach wrongful auction in three phases:  First, they shrug and say, “read your contract, you agreed to accept responsibility.” wrong ! no one takes responsibility for the landlord’s illegal conduct.  Second, they say, “our maximum damage is $5,000, which you agreed to in the contract, read your contract.”  Wrong again! – tenants don’t license the landlord to break the law.  Third – they hire lawyers and appraisers to deny valuable property was even there and to offer garage sale valuations for what they say wasn’t there.  Estimates like $7.50 for your $750 designer suit, $25 for your $2,500 handbag and so forth.  The English Merchants didn’t settle for this valuation and you don’t either.  Conversion value in California Civil Code is:

1.  Fair market value (or) peculiar value.  Civil Code 3355 means you potentially get the special value to you which is $1500 for your $1500 handbag, or more if it is autographed by a movie star for example).  Anyway, no garage sale instruction

2.  Emotional Distress:  the real damage from a wrongful auction is not the monetary items which can be replaced – it is the irreplaceable things.  The single mom who lost a houseful of property and memories – she often weeps about it;  The person who’s deceased dad was a firefighter who was decorated for saving lives.  He no longer has these awards to hand down and encourage his own children.  The emotional damage in a wrongful auction depends on the loss and the individual.

3.  Expenses Attempting to recover property:  Time and money lost pursuing recovery of the property is a recoverable damage in conversion.

4.  Interest:  Legal interest of the value from the date of the conversion.

5.  Punitive damages:  In a property case, with legal malice, the wrongful auction victim is entitled to punitive damages.

6.  Attorney fees:  Conversion is a tort which normally does not permit recovery of attorney fees.  However most of our cases use other theories in addition to conversion which allow attorney fee recovery.

These damages add up and that is the reason the industry has a 3-layered risk management approach.  The first is online “hacks” who monitor blogs and belittle wrongful auction victims:  “you have no rights – it’s your fault, you can read, can’t you?  You assumed all risk by contract and anyway – the maximum is $5,000.  Good luck losing in small claims court.”  These hacks also attack plaintiff lawyers, “He doesn’t care about the result of the case, just wants money.” (strange comment for contingent-fee lawyers who only get paid from winning and collecting).   Second is their deep bench of litigators who litigate the most obvious losing case just to tie up and exhaust the plaintiff.  Third is the lobbyists – see the news about the lobbyists working all 50 states to streamline the lien laws regarding eviction of deadbeats.

Thanks for reading and your activism regarding the flipside of “Storage Wars.”