What is the legal way to record room temperature?
December 17, 2010 2:43 PM   Subscribe

What is the legal way to record room temperature? I need to sue landlord for not heating the apartment.

My parents' landlord is purposely not heating their apartment, because their apartment is rent-stabilized, and he wants them to move out. As a result, they've experienced many health problems (they are very old).

I'm considering suing the landlord, but I wonder what proof do I need for the fact that they're not heating. What if the landlord claims that they've been heating the apartment all along? Is there a "legal thermometer" that can record the temperature on a daily basis and can provide proof in court?

posted by zavulon to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Call their city's Health Department. They are often the enforcement agent for this particular issue (or should be able to tell you who is) and will tell you what criteria you need and what steps you need to take. The city can do far worse to the landlord than you can via legal action.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:47 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The immediate issue for their health is getting them heated. Can you set them up with a space heater or other device?
posted by zug at 2:47 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I had that problem at an apt buildign it got solved when someone called out the city housing inspector. I think they took temp readings and made the landlord fix it. Can you contact the city where they live?
posted by oneear at 2:47 PM on December 17, 2010

Here in Chicago I know 311 can connect you with people who can take action on heat complaints. If your city has a similar phone service, you might try calling it.
posted by enn at 2:52 PM on December 17, 2010

If you are in NYC, call 311. They have a special line for heating issues, and will deal with it quickly. We had to do this with our landlord, not because the heat wasn't working, but because they had never finished a re-roofing job which left our ceiling with no insulation. Even with the heat on full blast, our apartment was getting down to 45-50 degrees during the night. The city came by, documented the temperature in the apartment, and then followed up with the landlord. Other neighbors were also complaining, and there was emergency insulation on the roof within a week.
posted by kimdog at 2:56 PM on December 17, 2010

Thank you for your responses. I appreciate the advice on what action should I take instead of suing - i.e. contact health department, call 311, etc. - and I might do that instead of suing.

That's not what I was asking though. Whatever action I take, how do I *prove* that there's no heat?
posted by zavulon at 2:59 PM on December 17, 2010

Whatever action I take, how do I *prove* that there's no heat?

Whoever 311 sends will measure the temperature, creating an offical record.
posted by zamboni at 3:02 PM on December 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Why not just buy a digital thermometer and take a pictures of it on a regular basis? Or you could even take pictures of a thermostat if there is one in the apartment.
posted by smalls at 3:04 PM on December 17, 2010

That's not what I was asking though. Whatever action I take, how do I *prove* that there's no heat?

You call 311, have them come out and make an official record of the temp with their instruments. I doubt anything less than a complaint will be considered in court, because it's too easy to alter the temperature if you're measuring it yourself, no matter how "legal" the instrument.
posted by vorfeed at 3:04 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't just try to organise this yourself, get your local public health body involved. Failing that, speak to a charity like whatever the American equivalent of Age Concern is. Whatever you do, please make sure you hammer this pond life landlord good and proper. There should be no hiding places for scum like that. Besides, he may be inflicting this on people other than your parents.

IANAL, but I think anything short of an official inspector measuring the temperature is going to be of little interest to this landlord and will not cause his lawyers much concern.
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 3:07 PM on December 17, 2010

If you are trying to gather evidence for a lawsuit, you should speak to a licensed attorney in your parents' jurisdiction to find out what kind of evidence you need for the kind of lawsuit you plan to file. No one here can give you competent legal advice about that.
posted by decathecting at 3:08 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here is a thermometer that allows you to record temperature and upload it to a computer. PC Upload Temperature Station
posted by smalls at 3:12 PM on December 17, 2010

Ok I spoke to my parents and here's the thing about calling 311 (yes, I'm in NY).

The landlord is not stupid. He *sometimes* turns the heat on (but most of the time it's off), so what I'm afraid of is calling 311, having them come in, and as poor luck would have, at the time they come in, the heat is on at full force. The landlord also randomizes the time he's heating - sometimes he would have the heat from 10 AM to 12, another day from 6 to 7 PM, etc.

I guess if that happens, I can just try again, but would they come again?
posted by zavulon at 3:13 PM on December 17, 2010

I guess if that happens, I can just try again, but would they come again?

I'm pretty sure they would.

There exist single-use temperature loggers (I linked to one that records to paper, there are others that do electronic recording) for use in things like temperature-sensitive shipping that will give you a log of the temperature over time. I am not a lawyer and have no idea if this would have any particular legal weight; after all, you could put the thing anywhere and claim it had been in the apartment.
posted by enn at 3:19 PM on December 17, 2010


Your question is related to evidence, which can be a tricky area of law. If the temperature of the apartment is somehow at issue in a legal proceeding, then you'd have to introduce evidence to convince the judge or jury that the temperature was what you say it was.

It's certainly possible that you could simply say "I checked my thermometer and it was 50°" and you'd be believed. The other side would have the opportunity to cross-examine you and show that you were lying, or that you read the thermometer wrong, or that your thermometer was broken or tampered with on the day you made the measurements, even if you show that it's working correctly now.

This is similar to the problem the police face when you dispute a radar-gun speed reading, and they address that by keeping maintenance logs and regularly calibrating and testing the guns. But the police do that as a matter of their "business," whereas you (probably) aren't in the temperature measuring business, so you don't normally calibrate and test your thermometer.

If it's really really important, you'd want to hire somebody who is in the temperature-measuring business to come in with a calibrated, documented thermometer and measure the temperature, then give you an affidavit stating what they found. If it was really important, you could even hire the technician to come to court and give testimony.

But if I was you, I'd call the city, as everyone else has suggested. Although the inspector may not have a calibrated thermometer, s/he'd be an excellent witness for you (either by affidavit or live testimony).
posted by spacewrench at 3:24 PM on December 17, 2010

One other thing: you may not need to convince a judge, only the housing inspector. So if you keep a written log yourself, you could show that to the inspector when s/he comes. That may be persuasive enough to get the inspector to come back if the landlord happens to turn the heat on during the inspection.
posted by spacewrench at 3:26 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

really 311 deals with this scam all the time. They will now exactly how to handle it.
posted by JPD at 3:34 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

311, health inspector, and here in minneapolis, we call the fire marshal.

are there other units in the building that are experiencing the same problem? Can they all rally together and make calls at the same time to show urgency?
posted by wocka wocka wocka at 3:41 PM on December 17, 2010

I deal with a lot of leased space at work and when occupants complain of temperature issues, we send them a Temperature Recorder which saves a digital output of temperature over a period of time. We send them off to be calibrated quarterly so they are as accurate as possible.
posted by rhapsodie at 3:46 PM on December 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you call 311, they may be able not only to measure the temp in the apartment, but monitor when the heat is being turned on.
posted by elpea at 3:56 PM on December 17, 2010

(IAAL, IANAL) First, call 311 as many times as you need to. Have them come out and take the temperature as many times as you need to. That's what they're there for. If they call and no one comes, call again. And again. And again. Second, if you haven't already, send a letter certified mail to the landlord explaning that there's no heat and demanding that heat be provided or you will take legal action. Yes, I know it won't do anything, but you need proof that that landlord has been informed of the problem.

There is no official or legal way to record a temperature. Any method you use would need to be admissible in court and subject to attacks on the method's accuracy/credibility. Where I work, we represent poor people, so we advise them to keep logs that record the date, time, outside temperature, and inside temperature. These can be useful if/when a tenant has to testify about the temperature at a trial. As spacewrench points out, testimony can be attacked on cross.

If your parents can afford higher tech solutions or expert temperature-takers, you might want to consult an attorney about their admissibility and whether they'd be any more useful than testimony. A couple of pitiful elderly people testifying about freezing their pitiful elderly butts off can be pretty compelling.

If you want some referrals to private firms that only represent tenants, I can memail you a list. (I do not work for any of these firms and have no personal interest in getting any of them work. I just know them or know of them from represnting tenants in NYC.) If you/your parents can't afford an attorney, you should call the places listed for their zip code on lawhelp.

NYC also has a lot of tenant organizations that might be helpful, listed here under Tenant and Housing Organizations. They won't have lawyers, but they will usually have advocates who are veterans of the fight against sleazy landlords. They might be more useful than lawyers at this stage because they've dealt with the issue more directly than the lawyers, who tend to just come in when it reaches the lawsuit stage.
posted by Mavri at 4:37 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh also, contact your parents' elected officials. They have a constituent services staff who can give you advice and referrals.
posted by Mavri at 4:39 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Definitely call 311 and confirm who you make to/make the complaint. I forget who you call for that, but I know the response is swift during heating season.

If your parents are rent stabilized, you definitely want the Department of Housing and Community Renewal. You'll want to go into their office w/ any leases your parents have signed, plus your list of violations, including heating. If there are any irregularities (especially in terms of rent raises and registration of the apartment, which is common in situations like your parents') there can be all sorts of financial penalties and remedies available to your parents beyond just getting the heat turned back on. But you must get the right paperwork, fill it out, and file the complaints with the DHCR. Your parents could be due for a lot more than heating (like triple damages in years worth of overpaid back rent.) It's worth the effort to take this step.

Again, the heat complaint will be handled immediately. For the heating and anything else, it is uber necessary to document that you have made official complaints. I've never had problems in NYC Housing Court showing up with my own logs and pictures of violations because I also reported violations to the relevant agencies. Anyway, most landlords settle in the lobby rather than go before a judge if the situation gets that far, but especially if you have done a stellar job of registering your complaints with the landlord (via mail) and the relevant city and state agencies.

I think folks are sort of ignoring your request for a special thermometer because for those of us who have been down this road (sometimes many many times) we know a simple log of the temperatures will do for court should it get to that point, but it's the inspector's report that holds the most weight AND will get you immediate results via the city with or without court.
posted by jbenben at 5:19 PM on December 17, 2010

Consider changing tack. It's not that the heat is only on sometimes, it's that sometimes it's off. Your parents should be able to use the heater whenever they want, and if they can't, then that's the code violation. You don't have to prove the temperature (necessarily), you just have to prove that the heating has been turned off.

Flip switch: no heat? Fan but no warm air? Document. When there's no heater, there's no heat, then it gets cold; everybody understands this. The landlord will not want to explain each of them.
posted by rhizome at 5:23 PM on December 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Call the number right after it turns off.
posted by Xany at 6:00 PM on December 17, 2010

How do you know that the landlord is turning the heat on and off? If this is something you can measure, it is something you can take a picture of.

Besides the above, get a food thermometer and calibrate it. Place it next to the thermostat. Take pictures with a camera that has a time-imprinter. Preferably with a film camera, so there is no "they modified it on them fancy computers" derails. Or take a picture of the television on a channel with the date and time.

Get a webcam that imprints date and time. Train it on the thermostat, taking shots once a minute or something.

(And I'd wonder if the heating system isn't being messed with, but is simply awful. Especially if it is a shared system, I can't see how the landlord is turning one off and not everyone else's. It might be a problem where the system has a malfunctioning [something] and is hitting a high-limit switch and resetting itself and won't turn back on for a pre-determined time?)
posted by gjc at 6:00 PM on December 17, 2010

Can you talk to the utility company and find out how much gas/electricity the landlord is buying for the unit/building? I believe this is publicly available information in many jurisdictions. If the usage is obviously low compared to other units/years/seasons, that would be pretty good evidence. This isn't as compelling if the unit has 30 units on the same meter, but then again if the landlord is screwing your parents, he's probably screwing the other tenants, too.
posted by monstrouspudding at 6:23 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

It depends on who you talk to, but a reasonable room temperature is in the 65°-80° F range. The thing is, no matter what you do the prove it, with photos and what not is, is going to prove anything because what's to stop you from opening a window, setting it on the windowsill, then pulling it in, setting it on a copy of today's newspaper and snapping a picture. This is why getting someone from the city involved is probably your best option.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:50 PM on December 17, 2010

I am a landlord.

I have no idea why you are interested in suing your landlord. What, exactly, are you hoping he outcome of this case will be? How will you proceed in court? What damages will you bring? You obviously don't have a lawyer, so are you as legally skilled and wily as your landlord's lawyer? Are you just hoping the judge tells the landlord "Turn the heat on already"? It's a mystery to me, and the likelihood is that your landlord could get continuances and demand evidence or introduce misleading/false evidence that will drag this out and actually accelerate the sense of harassment.

Whereas a housing inspector has the legal authority to order a landlord to turn the heat on without ever involving lawyers, a judge, or a courtroom, not to mention all the noticing and waiting around that entails. That's what they're there for.

(As it happens, I dealt with just such a complaint not three days ago. Without getting into the details of the situation, a housing inspector came, waved an infrared temperature reader around, and I passed. Pretty simple.)

Now, you might have a situation where the landlord ignores communications from the city and even fines assessed by the city. It happens. How you deal with that varies, but it's quite helpful at that point, particularly if you consider legal action, to have an official record at the city of complaints that were substantiated and not dealt with. Ultimately, if this is happening to the entire building, you'll actually want to go as a class action. Many attorneys would jump at the chance to pursue such a case, as the eventual settlement could be lucrative. But -- and I'm not a lawyer -- it seems to me that going to court as a first resort even in that sort of situation will prompt all kinds of questions about why the city's process was not used.
posted by dhartung at 11:05 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

A simple reference, if only to know what you are dealing with, is that many digital thermometers keep a highest/lowest record for the time between resets. I lived in a place with spotty heat, but hadn't fully realized that the temperature was going to the low forties some nights.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:59 AM on December 18, 2010

Ultimately, if this is happening to the entire building, you'll actually want to go as a class action. Many attorneys would jump at the chance to pursue such a case, as the eventual settlement could be lucrative.

Of course, if the landlord has so little money that they can't run the heat all the time, you are likely to get nothing.

So it seems like the best record of temperature is to call the 311 people and have them come and take the temperature. Call EVERY TIME it is colder than the allowed temp. (Look this up, of course.) The problem will get resolved soon enough.
posted by gjc at 8:33 AM on December 18, 2010

I called 311 in Brooklyn for a landlord who didn't turn the heat on (but had space heaters blasting in his apartment). It took them a week to come out, and it happened be be almost 50 degrees that day, so they left.

I agree with what's been said, taking legal action against the landlord will be less effective, and probably slower (IMHO). And perhaps with the temperatures we are having in the city now they will be quicker to respond.
posted by alhadro at 2:46 PM on December 18, 2010

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