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To Sue, or Not to Pursue? That is the (complex) question.
January 15, 2014 7:42 PM   Subscribe

My room has bedbugs. My landlord refuses to cover the costs of extermination, on the grounds that they've never had this problem before. Do I push it, or let it go? Complication: my landlord is not actually my landlord.

Before reading on, please know that all parties now currently reside in NJ. Nothing in my lease describes how pests of any kind are handled.

Details:

1) The actual property owner is a 92 year-old woman; while tenants' rent payments and security deposits go into her account, she does not manage the property in any way. All communication in relation to the property and the status of the tenants, and the collection of all rent and water utility payments, are managed by X, her daughter. X is the one who does occasional visits to the house, replaces smoke detectors, etc.

2) When communicating with X about issues, X's default response (documented) has been to immediately place blame on the tenants. Upon moving in, for example, I discovered that the fridge was covered in mold, was filled with items that had expired, and there were rotting produce in pantry shelf corners. It took me 5 hours to sort through, then sterilize, the fridge. I casually mentioned this to the landlord, who replied with "some things are out of my control. There's nothing I could have done about it." She responded similarly when I informed her, a month later, that ants had destroyed our food in the pantry and that we may need an exterminator if home remedies didn't work. It is for this reason that, when a mouse ran past me on my bed in the middle of the night, I didn't say anything right away, and instead spent tons of money laying a variety of traps and poisons. When I finally DID inform her of the mice (after discovering mice feces under couch cushions, on pantry shelves, and in cupboards), she recommended luring them out with peanut butter and vanilla.

3) When a bedbug ran across my leg last week, I immediately stripped my bed, heat-treated the sheets, and informed X of what I'd seen. X called an exterminator company before providing me with the number, and informed me of the cost of treating my room. By that point, I was fully aware that NJ law requires landlords to cover the costs of bedbug extermination, and so I pushed back against her claims that my guests (one of which was bitten over the weekend) were unhygienic, and that my lack of cleanliness brought them into the house. When I attempted to clarify who covered the cost, X told me that "[her mother] should not have to shoulder any part of the burden of this; it is enough that her house has now been introduced to bedbugs."

4) I've never, in the history of my living in apartments, dealt with this problem before. The rooms were not treated or properly cleaned in between tenants and subletters, although X told me that no one has ever complained about anything to her before. It's wholly possible that bedbugs were brought in before my August move-in, through a subletter, but either lay dormant or never fed on me (because I was never home for long enough). It is also possible that a bedbug was brought into my room on one of my shoes, or my bag. I mention both possibilities because culpability is NOT as clear-cut as X claimed it to be. And even IF bedbugs were drawn to filth, I dust and clean my room bi-weekly and use industrial-grade cleaner on my walls and surfaces (a by-product of my anxiety; I do it as a form of self-care). I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, unclean.

I don't know how fruitful it would be to pursue the costs of extermination ($374.50) in court. While I know for a fact that my house meets the minimum requirements for a landlord to be responsible for extermination, I don't know if X can be considered the de facto landlord. If she CAN'T, then I'd rather cut my losses: I cannot bring myself to sue a 92-year-old woman. Furthermore, X informed me during this exchange that her mother was in hospice care, which makes me even more inclined to swallow the cost and move forward.

BUT

$374.50 is a huge financial hardship for me, to the point where I'm quickly running out of food with no way to replace it. Putting down half of it today, as required by the exterminator, means that I can't pay bills, buy groceries, OR pay the rest of my rent in a timely fashion. Until I slept at my boyfriend's house last night (after heat-treating the clothes on my back, my backpack and other items for 2 hours to prevent carrying bedbugs), I had been awake without naps for 3 days. I have not been sleeping consistently since the mice problem (November), and I'm pretty pissed off.

Do I consult a lawyer, or do I let this go?
posted by Ashen to Human Relations (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you are confident that the law is on your side, then hire a lawyer and get your money to which you are legally entitled.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:46 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


You should consult a lawyer to know what your options are.

However, keep in mind that you may not get the money or extermination you want in a timely manner even if you have a strong case against the landlord. You may have to pay for the extermination first, then sue for the cost and possibly the cost of everything you have to destroy because of the bed bugs. There is also the possibility that your landlord will give in upon receiving a demand letter.

Also, keep in mind that bed bugs often require multiple treatments to be eliminated. Is moving out an option?
posted by ignignokt at 7:49 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


do NOT advance money to the exterminator. in many states, including california which is the one i know about, insect/rodent infestations are a breach of the warranty of habitability, which in some cases can justify you in withholding rent until the breach is cured.

i know nothing about new jersey law, but there is a legal aid office somewhere near you which can explain your rights and responsibilities. call them tomorrow.
posted by bruce at 7:50 PM on January 15 [13 favorites]


oceanjesse: "If you are confident that the law is on your side, then hire a lawyer and get your money to which you are legally entitled."

This.

By no means assume that a lawyer is out of your price range. Ask one.

I can stipulate that both of the lawyers that I'm related to would push back any billing so you can pursue your case.

ARGH, bedbugs creep the absolute shit out of me. I consider myself an adult and not afraid of the dark, but hot damn, bedbugs? That was shit my mom joked about in the 70s.
posted by Sphinx at 7:52 PM on January 15


I don't know about the law or about whether you should pursue this or not, but know that you are not suing a 92 year old lady. It is in her name only. When she dies, it will likely pass to the daughter (who must be in her 60s herself). Do what it best for you within the law.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:53 PM on January 15 [6 favorites]


Legal Aid is almost certainly your best bet, here, but I would be a bit reserved because the legal system is not good at things that need to be dealt with promptly, or at actually forcing anybody to pay for anything. A strongly worded letter from Legal Aid may be enough to fix it; if it's not, you may have trouble getting it dealt with timely. But check your MeMail, sending some other info.
posted by Sequence at 8:05 PM on January 15


To clarify: moving out is not an option (no money, no resources, no family I could stay with - and I cannot move in with my boyfriend). Also, I have already paid the exterminator $170 as a deposit on his services; the first treatment took place today, at 11am. Apparently I have to inhabit the room in order to lure bedbugs out of hiding and across the Delta Dust treatment, but I can't bring myself to a) fall asleep or b) enter the room.
posted by Ashen at 8:08 PM on January 15


Self-advocacy is an important skill to learn as an adult. If you let something this important go by without complaint you may find it harder in future to stand up for yourself in other situations where your health and rights are ignored in favour of someone else's wallet.

What she is asking you to do is a violation of your rights, damaging your health and negatively impacting your finances so that she can make more money off you.
At the bottom of the page is a link to obtain low cost legal services. Your University may also have free/low-cost legal services.
posted by saucysault at 8:09 PM on January 15 [10 favorites]


Tell X that is she does not have your apartment exterminated at her (or her mother's) cost, then you will withhold rent. Put that rent in a separate (escrow) account. If and when she arranges and pays for the extermination, then you will pay the rent.
posted by merejane at 8:13 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


I would spend a few hours reading whatever Google turns up on local landlord-tenant law, and learn as much as I could about both the relevant requirements and the standard remedies (e.g. if landlord fails to do X, consequence is Y), and then I would illustrate to the landlord (or in this case, her agent/daughter) that I knew what the law required, and what the remedy was. Every time she tossed out an excuse or reason, I'd simply reassert the requirements of the law. I would do as much of this in writing as possible, retaining excellent records, but if she spoke to me in person about it I'd respond exactly the same way:

Me: The house is infested with X and Z, and the law requires you to do A within B period of time.
Her: Excuse!
Me: I understand, but the law states that you must do A within B period of time or else Q.
Her: Extenuating circumstance!
Me: Be that as it may, the law requires you to do A within B period of time or else Q. I'd hate to see our relationship turn acrimonious, but this is not negotiable.

Every time you waffle, you only encourage her to resist. She's only going to spend the money necessary to fix this if you make it clear that failing to do so will only cost her even more dearly a little ways down the line.
posted by jon1270 at 8:21 PM on January 15 [7 favorites]


If everyone is correct about with-holding rent, then keep in mind that it will cost a lot more to have you evicted than it would cost to pay for an exterminator, so i would not be too afraid of witholding rent until she pays for one.
posted by empath at 8:42 PM on January 15 [6 favorites]


Here is a relevant page from LSNJ. The upshot (my emphasis):
Where bed bugs are concerned, you should get legal advice and assistance if:
  • You live in a building with two or more apartments and your landlord tries to make it part of your lease that you will be responsible for getting rid of bed bugs.
  • Your landlord wants you to pay to get rid of bed bugs in your apartment. Even if you live in a single family house, you should get legal advice before you pay for extermination services.
  • Your landlord refuses to do anything to get rid of bed bugs in your apartment.
  • The exterminator that comes to get rid of bed bugs wants you to do things that will be very hard on you and your family, such as throw away furniture that you can’t replace. These may be the right things to do, but you should get advice to make sure that the exterminator knows what he or she is doing.
  • You have to throw infested things away. If you do, you should get legal advice to find out if an agency or community organization must or can help you replace them.
  • Your landlord says that he or she is going to evict you or sue you because of the bed bugs. If this happens, you should get legal help immediately.
Your regional Legal Services office will be able to help you if you qualify based on your income.

If you find bed bugs in your home, the important thing is not to wait to do something. The best way to deal with bed bug problems is to get help as soon as possible.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:58 PM on January 15 [8 favorites]


Apparently I have to inhabit the room in order to lure bedbugs out of hiding and across the Delta Dust treatment, but I can't bring myself to a) fall asleep or b) enter the room.

Unfortunately this is accurate. You have to be the human bait in order to get them to walk across the dust and you may get bitten more in the process. It is actually less risky to do that then to sleep somewhere else, as I'm sure you know. Good luck - I'm really really sorry about this and it must be such a drag. Bed bugs and scummy landlords are a terrible combo and I hope you can ditch both of them soon (but especially the bed bugs).
posted by en forme de poire at 9:01 PM on January 15


Empath is right. You have been more than reasonable, and by refusing to cooperate she has effectively put you, against your will, in a fight that one of you must lose.
posted by STFUDonnie at 9:32 PM on January 15


It seems like your landlord is a slumlord. (I mean both the owner and her daughter.) They're not doing what they're supposed to be doing according to the law. (That fridge issue, for example. Totally unacceptable, totally the landlord's responsibility.)

You should do whatever you need to to get a bedbug-free apartment. Legally, that might mean suing your landlord, or withholding rent, or whatever a lawyer advises you. But don't worry about the ethics of fighting your landlord on this. They take your money every month. The least they can do is meet their basic legal responsibilities to provide a livable apartment.
posted by unreadyhero at 9:39 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


Put your rent in escrow and talk to a lawyer (free initial consultation). You're being taken advantage of by this woman and if moving out is not an option then escrow is the best idea. pest infestations that prevent normal use of the apartment (ex. sleeping in your bed) are a violation of the warranty of habitability that is implied into every residential lease; that's the violation that allows you to put your rent into escrow.

Alternatively you can inform her that you will deduct the cost of any exterminator visits that are her responsibility from your rent going forward, and pay her [rent-$374.50] next month.
posted by zdravo at 5:18 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


This recently happened to some folks in my city. Slumlord downright refused to address the issue, so they took it to the local media, which got the issue resolved very quickly. But it took the landlord getting a well-deserved public shaming.

I cannot bring myself to sue a 92-year-old woman. Furthermore, X informed me during this exchange that her mother was in hospice care, which makes me even more inclined to swallow the cost and move forward.


That tactic was intended to make you feel guilty. Do not feel guilty. Bed bugs are serious business and can spread very easily. Call a lawyer, now. You can't live like this.
posted by futureisunwritten at 5:22 AM on January 16 [7 favorites]


Wait, is the $374.50 for just your room, while there are additional bedrooms in the building? If so, yes, you should definitely pursue this, because treating just one room probably isn't going to work. :-/ The bedbugs could just as easily come through the walls from an adjoining space. And not everyone reacts to bedbug bites; it's possible that one of your neighbors brought them in and hasn't noticed the infestation yet. If that's the case, you paying money to exterminate just your room isn't going to work.

Did the exterminator inspect all the rooms and confirm that yours is the only one with bedbugs?

I agree with everyone else that this needs to go back on the landlord. Talk to a lawyer.

If this woman didn't want to manage property, she could hire a property manager, or ask her mother to sell the building -- nobody is forcing her to be a landlord. (I dealt with this myself with a landlord, so I know how frustrating it can be -- he bought a multi-family and gradually lost interest in managing it, which led to mold in the walls not getting dealt with for six months. Hell to the no. I moved out, because the unit no longer met my needs in a lot of ways and having mold that the landlord "would totally get to this weekend" for six months was merely the last straw, but in your case, it sounds like talking to a lawyer is the better course.)

$374.50 is a huge financial hardship for me, to the point where I'm quickly running out of food with no way to replace it. Putting down half of it today, as required by the exterminator, means that I can't pay bills, buy groceries, OR pay the rest of my rent in a timely fashion.

Please, please, please care for yourself in this. Practice self-care. Put your interests first. You deserve a room that meets the minimum habitability standards mandated by New Jersey laws and regulations. Talk to a lawyer about withholding rent until this is dealt with properly.
posted by pie ninja at 5:33 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I would second contacting legal services, but also get in touch with your jurisdiction's tenant-landlord/tenants' rights office. Your city/town/county government should have an office with people who are a) familiar with the law in your state and locality on bedbugs (sadly, not every jurisdiction considers bedbugs to be a variety of vermin landlords are required to address), and b) familiar with landlords' obligations regarding payment for extermination or tenants' ability to withhold rent, and c) may be able to help mediate the situation.

Seriously, your taxes support this service, and they are extremely knowledgeable. Use it! Good luck getting this sorted out. Bedbugs are the worst.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 6:01 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Head to legal aid, or housing court or whatever self-help is available in your area.

NEVER feel guilty about suing or seeking legal remedy because you feel sorry for the person who is putting you and your health at risk.

Your landlord may be 92, but that doesn't give her the right to ignore her responsibilities. When you sue, list her AND her daughter on the suit, this will cover you should she die during the dispute.

As I ALWAYS say in these matters, once you file suit, call "The People's Court" and see if they'll mediate your case. When you win, THEY cut the check, not your cranky landlady.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:31 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Definitely withhold rent. I've lived in Jersey shitholes for years in college and did this for every infraction. In rentals similar to yours, I found the owners / landlord / whoever didn't even have the proper licensing on the property required by the town to rent it out so they would have an even harder and more costly process to evict and thus elected to pay for whatever should have been done in the first place.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:03 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


One thing I did in Oakland when an unswept chimney deposited three pounds of soot all over my new furniture, was to send my rent, minus the amount I spent on cleaning the soot up. I sent a copy of the receipt. It was never questioned.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:10 AM on January 16


(IANAL)

Do you think the sweet 92-year old grandma would refrain from suing you (through her daughter) if they had grounds to do so?

Your landlord, X+granny, is trying to weasel out of their obligations by being difficult and so are condemning you to a shitty life living in an infested house, which given your sensitivity to cleanliness, is both doubly unjustified and doubly shitty.

If X won't stump for an exterminator, as it appears is her obligation, then you are obliged to either deal with it or move out. Dealing with it means either pestering X until she relents, or taking the money out of the rent and suing if she throws you out because of this.

I mean, either that or live a shitty life in a horrible, infested home. But that's obviously not an option.

It's harsh and I absolutely loathe dealing with things like this, but X is not going to do anything to solve this if you don't make her.

Best of luck.
posted by Drexen at 8:19 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Thank you so much for your replies, and sorry for the delayed response. After heat-treating my clothes, I spent a few nights with my boyfriend so that I could sleep.

My earliest opportunity to visit Legal Aid is tomorrow morning, and so I shall. If the case is viable, I'm hoping that just receiving a formal letter is enough to scare X into doing the right thing. If not, then I'm definitely tacking on the cost of replacing my infested rug, my mattress, and the cost of the drugs I had to acquire in order to sleep for the next two months.

Thank you helping me develop a clearer sense of where I should take this.
posted by Ashen at 2:45 PM on January 19 [4 favorites]


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