Washington Heights renter prevails in “game changer” case

By David Jones | August 14, 2013 02:00PM

Law firm Kucker & Bruh will have to cough up $22,000 to an 82-year-old Washington Heights tenant, who claimed the firm launched a bogus eviction case against him on behalf of a landlord client — a case said to be the first of its kind.

Rafael Lee, a resident of 810 West 183rd Street, claimed the firm went after him for $1,125 in unpaid back rent.

This was allegedly despite his landlord, Woodfin Properties, collecting a monthly senior citizen rent subsidy that offset his rental costs.

He received a pretrial settlement, plus legal fees, last week.

“I believe this is the first time that a landlord law firm has been sued for this kind of violation,” said Lee’s attorney, James Fishman, referring to federal debt collection laws. “I would call it a game changer in housing court.”

Lawyers from the firm did not respond to requests for comment. Officials from the landlord or managing agent were not immediately available for comment.

Lee has been a tenant at the five-story walkup apartment complex since 1965, according to court documents. His legal rent in March 2012 was about $790.30, but his rent has been fixed at $400.72 per month since 1995, under the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption, documents show.

The dispute started when Woodfin sued Lee to collect $1,125, which included $790 for March 2012, plus eight months of $38 fuel payments and a $30 balance from February. The delinquent notice showed that a $400.72 payment had been made, but was not credited against the balance.

However, Lee’s lawyers submitted evidence that the subsidy should have been properly credited, and the property’s managing agent, Mall Properties, withdrew the eviction case in May 2012. Lee was awarded legal fees but then sued Kucker & Bruh in federal court, claiming they had violated federal debt collection laws.

Kucker & Bruh argued that they made an excusable mistake. But in her ruling, Judge Lorna Schofield said that bill collectors are under strict liability based on federal debt collection law and that the firm did not have adequate procedures to prevent the mistake.

“There is no dispute that the defendants mischaracterized the character, amount and legal status of Mr. Lee’s debt,” Judge Schofield wrote. “Because defendants lacked procedures reasonably adopted to avoid the error, the bona fide error defense of [the statute] does not apply.”

Fishman, a leading tenant lawyer, said that landlords often target seniors or tenants on Section 8 subsidies with frivolous lawsuits. The idea is to force them out of their apartments, deregulate the units, and bring in tenants who can pay higher rent.

“It’s a well known landlord scheme that if you sue somebody repeatedly for non-payment that they’re either going to give up and move out or they’re going to default and get evicted,” he told The Real Deal.