Suing Your Landlord (aka Beating The Man: Part II)

We’ve all experienced a landlord, employer, contractor, etc., who has not held up their end of a bargain—withholding money from you simply because there’s no real incentive to pay. It’s frustrating, and once you’ve exhausted the VERY PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE EMAILS, there’s not much to do besides take legal action, which can seem more daunting than it’s worth. But if you have the stamina and sufficient proof for it, and especially if you have an ongoing Beating the Man blog series, suing someone is a surprisingly navigable—and if I may say so, awfully satisfying— adventure.

Let me begin by saying that I adored my wonderful little tenement apartment in the Lower East Side since early 2009 when I (and UE contributor Emmy Yu) moved in. It was a tiny place with a huge private patio, on what is arguably the best block in Manhattan, not that I’m biased. My long-term plan was for my boyfriend to move in with me, turning the two-bedroom into a one-bedroom with a living room. Then we would live there probably forever, eventually befriending the owner and quietly purchasing the entire 5-story building from him/her for a scandalously low rate.

In December of 2012, my building was sold and my dream along with it: the new management company told me they were going to raise my rent $850 (36%) per month, and no, they wouldn’t budge on that. This is legal, by the way, if you live in a non-rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartment in New York, and the raise remains below the designated market rate.

I made preparations to move out and got my things in order, including taking care of some shady “late fees” amounting to $770 that had been thrown onto my account. This is something the former landlord used to do for kicks—a few hundred dollars would accumulate on my bill, then I would call them to protest and they would quickly say “Oops!,” tossing their hair impishly (I imagined), then drop the charges. But because the old management company was pretty much checked out in anticipation of the sell, I couldn’t reach anyone regarding the bogus charges—known as arrears in real estate-speak—and when the building was sold, my arrears were transferred to the new management company without any documentation (because there wasn’t any to begin with).

A months-long series of conversations and emails of bank statements (to prove rent payment) with a representative from the new management company ended with her CFO not budging on returning the $770, and it was withheld from the security deposit that they finally sent me. “Looks like I’ll be taking you guys to court,” I said, without any idea what that really entailed. “My boss says ‘go right ahead,’” responded the rep. Not wanting to back down, I was determined to follow through on whatever it was I had just threatened to do. So I did what any grown-up would do: I Googled “suing someone.”

My reliable friend the Internet led me to this helpful site, about filing small claims suits in New York State. I planned to go to the District Court on Canal Street one morning before work, but the night before I intended to file, I discovered some fine print on the District Court site that said I had to file in the county of the defendant. And since the company is based out of Great Neck, NY, that meant filing in the Nassau County court…. in Hempstead, NY. I realized then why the CFO had called my bluff. This was much farther than Canal Street.

Not to be intimidated by inconvenience, I woke up around 6:00 the next morning and headed to the train station, where I hopped on an hour-long Long Island Railroad train to Hempstead and walked to the District Court building from the station. I made sure to save all of my travel receipts so I could amend the final amount on my court date (which you can do, or at least request, on the day of). Inside, at the small claims office, they handed me a very basic form to file a small claims (under $5000) complaint. I handed it back, paid the $15 filing fee, and was assigned a court date for about a month later. Easy peasy. I walked back to the station, jumped on a train back to the city, and headed to work.

My court date was ultimately pushed back another month when I realized that I should have included the LLC associated with my particular building in addition to the management company. Typically, when you mail a rent check, it’s to the LLC for your particular building and not to the larger management company that handles the buildings it owns. That way, it’s easier for the larger company to avoid liability (“We didn’t know! We don’t deal with individual tenants!”). I was able to amend the complaint over the phone and the small claims office pushed the date back so they could send an updated summons to the now-two defendants.

I called my aunt and uncle (both lawyers) to ask their advice regarding court and to gauge my chances. They told me that New York courts tended to be tenant-friendly, but I should bring everything just in case. And fortunately, having inherited the hoarding gene, I had everything: the original lease from 2009 (detailing the late policy), the original inspection form, proof of every rent payment in the form of bank statements, and photos of the apartment, in addition to every email correspondence I’d had with the evil management company.

On the day of the court appearance, I brought my small mountain of documentation with me on the train, and I showed up at 9:00 for my 9:30 summons. From the crowd of people milling around a signup sheet outside my assigned courtroom, I gathered that there were about 30 cases all scheduled for that morning. I took note of the number listed next to my name and grabbed a seat in the courtroom, which looked pretty much like a conventional courtroom: 10 or so rows of benches, a long desk in the front, and a judge’s stand behind that. I realized then that the people filling the seats in all those Law & Order court scenes are just pending plaintiffs and defendants, listening patiently to Detective Benson’s gallant summations until their turn to see the judge. I looked around for my defendant.

A clerk took attendance by number. If the defendant and plaintiff were both present, he sent them down to a mediation room, where an arbitrator would help them come to a settlement. If both sides couldn’t come to a settlement, then the case would be sent back up to the judge to decide after each pled their case. When the clerk called my number, I raised my hand, but no one from the management company was there, so he pushed my case to “second call” and moved down the list. I had an in-case-of-boredom novel I brought open in front of me, but hardly glanced at it; there’s something bizarrely intriguing about hearing the various disputes people have with each other. The clerk was patient but clearly trying to move as briskly as possible through the cases, occasionally (to my suppressed glee) sniping at someone for talking out of turn or not answering his question properly.

He assured us that we would go through the second call before having to sit through trials of failed mediations. This meant that if a rep from the management company didn’t show up by the time my case was called again, the case would be called an “inquest” and the judgment would be defaulted to me provided that I could prove the amount owed. Sure enough, my name came around again and no one had showed up. I can’t say that I wasn’t a little disappointed not to open a can of dossier whoop-ass, but I would get a chance to present to the judge nonetheless. I handed the clerk a paystub listing the arrear amount, which he passed up to the judge. Because they were trying to get through all the inquests before the lunch break, neither inquired any further into my case or asked for any additional proof. So I wasn’t sure how understanding they would be, especially because I didn’t get a chance to really explain my case, but when the clerk handed me an envelope to self-address for the judgment, he commented, “You have a lot of enthusiasm, young lady.”

A week later, I received a judgment in my favor for the full amount, plus interest and travel fees, and I did a little jig. But it would be another month before I actually saw any money. The company tried to delay paying me in every way possible; first telling me they were trying to reschedule the hearing because their rep had to go to a funeral, and then just flat-out ignoring my calls. Too stingy to hire a marshal, I conjured up that ingrained skill of all youngest children—the great power to annoy. I began calling about once an hour every day, often repeatedly until I could hear the gratifying click of them manually hanging up on me. It took them a week to realize that they would rather pay $800 than deal with me any longer, and when they did, a check appeared in the mail.

… And you can, too! By now, you’ve realized that anyone with Internet access and the willingness to be a total thorn can file a suit if they feel financially wronged. I highly recommend it, as nothing feels better than sweet, sweet justice, except maybe depositing an $800 check. Here’s some advice if you do take action against a company: Save everything— receipts, forms, leases, take-out napkins. Be vigilant. Be very, very, very, very irritating. Bullshit your way to the finish line (everything is Googleable), and remember that confidence—even if preemptive—will help sway the powers that be onto your side. And always bring a book.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Beating The Man,” in which I try to sneak into the bathroom at The Four Seasons.* Succeed… or die!!

*JK

Photo by Anastasia Heuer

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