James Fishman, assisted by Jennifer Addonizio Rozen and associate Susan Crumiller recently won a significant victory on behalf of New York City tenants in Lee v. Kucker & Bruh (“K&B”) that should have a major impact on the way landlords bring non-payment eviction cases in the Housing Court.
Our client, Raymond Lee, is an elderly rent controlled tenant who lived in his Upper Manhattan apartment since 1965. His rent is $790 per month however, because he has a Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (“SCRIE”) it is frozen at $400.00. His rent is always paid on time each month. Despite this his landlord, represented by K & B sued him in the Housing Court claiming he failed to pay rent and various fuel surcharges. After we successfully got the Housing Court case dismissed and recovered legal fees for doing so from the landlord, we filed suit in federal court against K&B under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) claiming that it was illegally seeking to collect a debt that was not in fact due.
After a year of litigation the federal court issued a scathing decision finding that K&B had violated the FDCPA and that because it had no procedures to avoid making the error it could not avail itself of the “bona fide error” defense under the statute. The court further confirmed that debt collectors, like K&B are “strictly liable” when they make a mistake by suing for money no actually owed which means it is irrelevant whether they intended to violate the law or not.
The significance of this decision for NYC tenants cannot be overstated. Landlords regularly sue for rent that is not in fact due. Often this is done as a means of harassing rent regulated tenants from their apartments. And, the mere filing of such a case causes the tenant to become “blacklisted,” making it difficult for them to rent an apartment anywhere else in the country.