NY Attorney General Tish James puts eviction filers on notice

Investigation found law firm sent process servers to tenants despite statewide moratorium

Attorney General Letitia James (Getty)
Attorney General Letitia James (Getty)

A pandemic and a statewide eviction ban didn’t stop at least one law firm from filing eviction notices — which sparked an investigation from New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Her probe of Manhattan law firm Kucker, Marino, Winiarsky and Bittens, which led to a June 30 settlement, found that dozens of eviction notices sent to tenants were a violation of the public health law, executive law and general business law.

The investigation may also serve as a warning to those navigating the state’s guidance on eviction, which has bewildered landlord and tenant attorneys alike.

“No New Yorker should live in fear of having their home taken away from them, especially during a global pandemic,” said James in a statement. “The actions of the law firm Kucker, Marino, Winiarsky & Bittens on behalf of their clients are not only deceptive, but also incredibly harmful to the health and wellbeing of New Yorkers.”

During the period that the firm sent eviction notices, a total ban on evictions in New York had been in place for more than a week. The investigation found that from March 25 through May 11, the firm sent process servers to hand-deliver 54 eviction notices to tenants. Those notices, which did not mention the moratorium, demanded tenants leave their homes, pay rent, or face an eviction proceeding in Housing Court.

The statewide eviction moratorium did not sideline process servers, who were deemed essential workers, but the attorney general called the notices they delivered “deceptive and false” because they led tenants to believe they would have to leave their apartment or be evicted unless they paid.

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In the settlement, the firm said it believed not only was it acting ethically to represent its clients, but that process servers were deemed essential workers. It neither admitted nor refuted the findings.

The firm declined to comment for this story.

In April, the law firm told The Real Deal that “landlords need to issue rent demands,” in order to have warrants to evict once the moratorium was lifted.

As part of the settlement, the firm pledged not to engage in any “deceptive or fraudulent
rent or debt notices” and agreed to withdraw its notices and send informational letters to the tenants who received them.

New York City has not experienced the surge in evictions that other places around the country have, although tenant advocates warn that the protections in place keeping that from happening are tenuous. Housing Court reopened partially last week, allowing a small number of eviction cases to be filed.

A pause on most eviction proceedings expired Monday night, just days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill allowing some tenants to use Covid-related financial distress as a defense against evictions for non-payment of rent. The bill would allow money judgments instead of evictions for such tenants, but does not prevent the filing of new cases.