Landlord-tenant disputes are among the most frequent causes of real estate litigation in New York. It is important for all parties to understand their legal rights and responsibilities. For instance, a landlord cannot unilaterally evict a tenant or seize a tenant's possessions to pay back rent. Instead, the law requires the tenant to obtain a court order, which authorizes the local sheriff (or marshal in places like New York City) to carry out an eviction.
Court Chides Woman for Locking Out Roommate Without Obtaining Legal Eviction
Here is an illustration from arecent case heard before a small claims court in Brooklyn. In this case, a woman rented a room in an apartment leased by another woman. This made them more than mere roommates; it also created a landlord-tenant relationship under New York law. The woman renting the room was effectively a subtenant.
In late October 2014, the subtenant took an extended trip out of the country. She did not return to New York until January 2015. During this period, she failed to make several required rent payments to the roommate-landlord. In February, the subtenant arrived at the apartment with the police to recover her personal property. At this point, she claimed the roommate-landlord had damaged or otherwise seized certain property for her own use.
Litigation followed in Kings County Civil Court, which hears claims under $25,000. The plaintiff (subtenant) said she was entitled to compensation for the value of her lost personal items. The defendant (landlord) filed a counterclaim, arguing she was still owed $2,100 in back rent.
The judge ruled for the plaintiff. First, he found the subtenant proved she lost personal items valued at $1,125 as a result of the defendant's actions. Normally this would be offset by the value of the unpaid rent, the judge explained, but in this case, the defendant was entitled to nothing because she failed to follow New York law before evicting the subtenant. In fact, the defendant never bothered to seek any legal eviction whatsoever. Instead, she simply changed the locks to the apartment and denied the plaintiff access to her property.
In order to evict a roommate, you must first obtain a court order. This can be in the form of either an eviction or “legal possession.” In an eviction, the court orders the removal of both the tenant and her personal property from the premises. Legal possession, in contrast, means the tenant is removed but her property “remains under the care and control of the landlord as bailee for the tenant.” In other words, even under legal possession, you cannot simply seize or sell off your roommate's possessions to pay back rent. And even with an eviction, a marshal or sheriff must be present before any personal property is removed.
Since the defendant in this case failed to do any of this, the judge said she could not recover the unpaid rent. Instead, the judge ordered her to reimburse her former roommate in the amount of $1,125.
Need Help With a Landlord-Tenant Problem?This is a fairly straightforward example of how courts address landlord-tenant disputes. Many cases are far more complex, especially if it involves commercial property. That is why it always a good idea to work with an experienced New York real estate attorney. Contact the offices of Waldhauser & Nisar, LLP, if you would like to speak with someone today.