Tenants seek legal recourse over bedbugs

By Yaffi Spodek | November 18, 2010 09:56AM

As bedbugs continue to pop up at locations in the city — most recently at the Manhattan district attorney’s offices, at the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel and at a Brooklyn public school — tenants are increasingly looking to the legal system for help.

Michael Kozek, an attorney with tenant representation firm Jeffrey S. Ween & Associates, said that dozens of New York City rental and co-op residents have hired him over the last six months to fight their landlords. Most cases have been resolved before reaching the point of a lawsuit.

A number of cases have made it to the Housing Part of The Civil Court of the City of New York as well, where tenants sue the city for failing to enforce the law, and go after their landlords for failing to comply with it. The number of bedbug cases that have been filed in Housing Court is not clear as the court does not specifically document such cases.

While a new law, the Bedbug Disclosure Act, was recently instituted to require landlords to tell would-be tenants whether any of the insects had been found in their unit or building in the past year, it has not been effective enough at determining who is to blame for an infestation and who is physically and financially responsible for handling it. That confusion, coupled with the increase in bedbugs, is likely to prompt more tenants to take legal action.

“I think there will be a flurry of bedbug cases being brought now to Housing Court,” said Steven Wagner, an attorney who specializes in condominium and co-op law at Wagner Davis. “But the overwhelming majority of these cases are solved through stipulations where the landlord is given time to correct the situation, or the case is adjourned until then.”

The Bedbug Registry — a free national public database of bedbug sightings, based on consumer complaints, which launched in 2006 — says that the New York metro area has the worst problem in country, with 4,490 bedbug reports.
The bedbugs are scattered across the five boroughs, but the map shows that a larger number of bugs were found in the Upper East and West sides, Harlem, Hamilton Heights, Williamsburg and Astoria.

According to a report from Terminix, a leading pest control company, New York ranks number one on a list of the nation’s 15 most bedbug-infested cities.

Close to 50 percent of all buildings in New York City are infested with bedbugs, entomologist Louis Sorkin told The Real Deal after a briefing on the “bedbug pandemic” last Thursday, sponsored by bedbug detection firm Bed Bugs Super Dogs, and held at the Real Estate Board of New York’s East Side headquarters.

There are three kinds of main cases being brought to attorneys in connection with bedbugs.

One is where a tenant refuses to pay rent because they say they have bedbugs and the landlord sues them for rent in Housing Court. Rent abatements are granted in these cases “depending on several different factors, such as how many bedbugs there were, where they were found and how effectively the landlord worked to get rid of them,” Wagner said.

Jeffrey Turkel, a partner at Rosenberg & Estis, said during last Thursday’s panel, that he has been successful in securing rent abatements of up to 40 percent for his clients, tenants who are blaming landlords for the infestation. He generally advises landlords to “take reasonable steps to address the problem or deal with it proactively.”

A second type is based on negligence at an apartment building or hotel. Either a tenant or a hotel guest will bring action against the landlord or hotel owner for violating the housing code, which mandates that when renting a room, it shouldn’t have conditions in it which negatively affect the space. “Those cases are still winding their way through court,” Wagner said, and his office has handled several such cases in the last few months.

The third category of cases is a newer one, Wagner noted, which relates to the disclosure statute, where a tenant moves into an apartment, discovers bedbugs and wants to get out of his lease by claiming the landlord committed fraud by not revealing that there had been bedbugs.