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The New York Times: Tenant Sues to Stay Off List of Tenants Who Are Sued

November 2, 2011, 1:45 pm
By ELIZABETH A. HARRIS

James Whelan has a little piece of every New York tenant’s dream: a rent stabilized apartment. It’s a quiet one-bedroom on the Upper East Side where he has lived for 17 years, and it costs him less than $1,500 a month.

Tina Fineberg for The New York Times • James Whelan in his apartment on the Upper East Side on Wednesday.

James Whelan in his apartment on the Upper East Side on Wednesday • Tina Fineberg for The New York Times

But Mr. Whelan’s landlord, a limited liability company, says that it needs the apartment for a relative of one of the principals, and it is trying to get him out. And if the landlord takes Mr. Whelan to court, Mr. Whelan may end up on a list of troublesome tenants who have been sued for eviction. Even if he wins the case.

So on Monday, Mr. Whelan pre-emptively filed a suit (see also below) in state court to keep his name off those tenant screening lists. If he wins, the practice of collecting and selling those names in New York may have to be halted entirely, his lawyer said.

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times The menu at landlord-tenant court.

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times • The menu at landlord-tenant court.

The New York State Office of Court Administration sells to private companies the names of everyone who is sued in housing court for eviction on the very day the case is put on the calendar. Those companies then compile the information and sell it to landlords looking to avoid difficult or irresponsible tenants.But those screening lists do not make a distinction between renters who ultimately win their cases (perhaps they withheld rent because they had no heat) and those who lose (say, they bought some nice jewelry instead of paying their landlord what they owed).
Mr. Whelan’s lawyer, James B. Fishman, says this practice has a chilling effect on tenants’ rights, as some people opt to move out rather than face their landlord in court and risk being blacklisted for years. (Companies that curate these lists are supposed to purge names after seven years, but some are notoriously sloppy.)

“The only way that Mr. Whelan can challenge the good faith intentions of his landlord is to challenge a lawsuit,” Mr. Fishman said. “But you don’t ever reach the good faith issue until you’re sued. It’s a Catch-22.”

On Monday, Justice Eileen A. Rakower of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan temporarily blocked the distribution of Mr. Whelan’s information, pending the next court date in a few weeks.

The housing court calendar information is one of several kinds of data sold by the state court system, including city- and state-level civil court information. The names of tenants sued by landlords are contained in a “data dump” of all housing court information that sells for $20,000 for the first download and $350 for weekly updates.

“There’s a lot of public information out there that when people want it in this form, there’s a fee to cover costs,” said David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration. Mr. Bookstaver said he could not comment on Mr. Whelan’s suit because it is pending litigation.

Joseph Strasburg, the president of the Rent Stabilization Association, a trade group representing landlords, said that it might make sense to modify the tenant data that is sold so that it notes whether the tenant won the case.

“I don’t have a problem with providing more information as to the disposition of a case,” Mr. Strasburg said. “I do have a problem with precluding using it as a tool.”

He said that the tenant data was important in helping landlords avoid what he called “professional tenants” — those who immediately stop paying rent after they move in and just wait to be evicted, a process that takes months.

If Mr. Whelan’s landlord does take him to court, Mr. Fishman said, it may find the case quickly dismissed because private companies cannot reclaim a stabilized apartment for family members the way an individual can. But just being sued is enough to make the future difficult.

“They’ll put me on a blacklist,” said Mr. Whelan, 52, a limousine driver who has worked as a real estate broker. “If you’re renting an apartment, they check that out. And if you’ve been to housing court, you’re not going to get the apartment.”

His lawyer, Mr. Fishman, said: “The state gives tenants lots of rights, but then the state participates in a process that takes away all those rights. If you can’t assert those rights, you might as well not have them.”

Andy Newman contributed reporting.

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