Matthew Cardinale, Atlanta Progressive News, Atlanta.

A real estate company that offers lease-to-own homes has asked a judge to let it out of contract with a local law student whose resume includes arguing and winning a pro se suit against the city of Atlanta at the Georgia Supreme Court.

In a suit filed last month, San Francisco-based Divvy Homes claims it was misled by Matthew Cardinale, a housing advocate and publisher of online news webpage Atlanta Progressive News, who asked Divvy to makes multiple repairs to the northwest Atlanta house he bought in February.

Cardinale, the company said “appears to have entered into the lease agreement for purposes of his own agenda and not in a good faith effort to pursue home ownership” with Divvy.

“Cardinale, a law student, has had extensive experience with housing regulations, is a proclaimed housing advocate and has appeared regularly before the Atlanta City Council’s [community development and human services] committee,” according to the petition.  

Not so, said Cardinale, who says he loves his Hunter Hills house but expects his landlord, Divvy, to make necessary repairs to bring it up to code.   

“They said I basically fraudulently conspired, using my superior knowledge of the law, to make it seem like I would make the repairs then shift the burden to them,” Cardinale said.

He said that, while Divvy did make some repairs, remaining issues include electrical switches, windows that won’t open, water damage, a leaky roof and structural damage.

Troutman Sanders partner William Droze filed the petition for declaratory relief April 4, but both sides have already exchanged multiple motions and filings, including an Anti-SLAPP motion aimed at Divvy’s argument the contract should be rescinded because he’s a housing advocate.  

“It’s not illegal to be a housing advocate,” he said. “The idea that I, a third-year law student, somehow took advantage of them is also kind of silly.”

Cardinale was awarded a full legal scholarship to Gonzaga University School of Law after persuading the Georgia Supreme Court that Atlanta officials violated the state Open Meetings Act, and finished up his final course at Emory University Law School just last week.   

He also faced down the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2016, when its lawyers sent him a cease-and-desist letter demanding he take down a website for his affordable housing organization, SmartALEC.  

Cardinale ignored it, and ALEC never followed through on its threats.

Droze was unavailable for comment on Wednesday, and Divvy president Brian Ma said he would refer questions to another lawyer representing the company. There was no further response by press time.

According to Divvy’s petition, the lease agreement states the premises “are in good and satisfactory order” and accepted “as-is.”

It said Cardinale “began making repair requests to Divvy Homes and sought to prorate the February rent” as soon as he moved in.

Despite the lease agreement, Divvy made a “good faith effort” to respond, spending more than $12,000 on repairs “in an effort to satisfy Cardinale with the property.”

Divvy argued that neither party realized the extent of damage the house had when it was inspected and said the contract should be rescinded because “the parties were laboring under a mutual mistake” when the lease was signed.

It said Cardinale had reported via social media that he was preparing to sue Divvy and had “breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing” under Georgia contract law.

Cardinale responded with his own counterclaims for damages he incurred, including damages for clothing ruined by a sewage leak and stays at a hotel while the house was uninhabitable.

His anti-SLAPP motion confirmed that Cardinale testified at a City Council committee meeting on March 27 about his experience with Divvy, and posted about Divvy on Facebook and YouTube.

“Addressing the Atlanta City Council and communicating with elected officials regarding one’s experiences as a residential tenant are protected First Amendment activities,” Cardinale wrote.

Divvy, Cardinale wrote, is arguing he “should be deprived of his very home because he chose to make statements on Facebook that [Divvy] did not like,” and because he “petitioned the legislative and executive branches of the city of Atlanta.”

On Wednesday, Cardinale said he was busy crafting a further response to Divvy’s “mutual mistake” claim and that Georgia’s landlord-tenant law clearly required Divvy to make necessary repairs even if both parties were unaware of them when the lease was signed.    

Cardinale said he expected the court to strike many of Divvy’s claims and laughed at the argument that it should be able to back out the lease because he is a housing advocate.

“I guess we housing advocates are going have to build a tent city under a bridge so we’ll have a place to live,” he said.