Should I sue my landlord?
September 7, 2012 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Lease break legal-filter. Former landlord's making ridiculous security deposit deductions and backing out on a written agreement to refund pro-rated rent after asking me to move out early for a new tenant. Is this worth going to court about?

I requested to sublet or assign my NYC lease earlier this year. Landlord responded that I can't do either but they would allow me to find a replacement tenant. I found a replacement tenant acceptable to the landlord. LL asked me to move out earlier than I had considered moving out in order to make repairs and clean so that new tenant could move in at her convenience, and told me that they would pro-rate the rent I had already paid for the month as of the move-out date they requested.

I moved out early at their express written request (they asked for me to leave the keys, they picked up keys, etc) left the apartment in better-than-broom-clean condition (floors and baseboards scrubbed, insides of kitchen appliances spotless, etc). Only damages were minor picture holes in the wall and normal wear-and-tear scuffs to the paint. I have pictures showing the apartment on move-out day. Now, after I requested that they refund me the amount due back (security deposit, prepaid last month's rent, and the pro-rated amount of my ACTUAL last month's rent) they are trying to get me on the hook for THOUSANDS of $ worth of repairs (redoing floors, regrouting tile, repairing things that weren't broken, etc) and claiming that this is what it cost them to re-rent the apartment to the new tenant. They're also refusing to pay the pro-rated rent as of the day they asked me to move out. The cherry on top is that when I request proof of damages and inform them that I have photos and will pursue my legal rights, they are threatening to sue me for breaking the lease (for what, I don't know, because they have a new tenant and no missed rent).

What's the best way to pursue this? If I don't go after them, I'll be out upwards of $5k, so it seems to make sense, but I'm not sure how to go about it. A previous question mentioned the Attorney General's office, but that they won't help you if you're getting legal representation. Is this something I should go to the AG's office about first, or should I just go for a lawyer? Which of the landlord's claims are reasonable and which are just those of a slimeball trying to get his grubby hands on whatever he can?

Throwaway at IKYANAL, but it would help to better understand if it's worth spending the money to get a lawyer and pursue this further. If anyone can suggest an NYC tenant's rights lawyer (I hear Catharine Grad is good) I'd appreciate that, too.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (13 answers total)
Small claims court, once you fille, call People's Court to see if they'll hear the case. That way, when you win, THEY pay you, not the scumbag landlord.

Once your landlord agreed in writing to amend the lease, you're not on the hook for any lease breaking issues.

Keep all of your emails, print them out in big type and save them for your case.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:25 PM on September 7, 2012

Rule of thumb: As soon as someone threatens to sue you, talk to a lawyer. Especially if that threat is made in writing.

I'd give good odds on your landlord folding as soon as actual lawyers are involved. It'll be a couple hours of work on the lawyer's part to write a letter and won't cost you anywhere near $5K.
posted by Etrigan at 2:34 PM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

My friends just went through something similar (in LA not New York) and they had to go through small claims court. No lawyers, just the annoyance of having to take a couple days off work and get all their documentation together, but they did get their thousands of dollars back. I would definitely pursue.
posted by justjess at 2:58 PM on September 7, 2012

And ask the lawyer about "prevailing party being entitled to attorney fees and costs", either based on your rental agreement and/or local or state law.
posted by uncaken at 3:01 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

It might be worth $500 or so in legal fees to you just to have it be the lawyer's problem to hassle it, rather than you having to deal with it. (That was our feeling when we were dealing with an unreasonable landlord when we were the ones breaking a lease (but he didn't want to bother to make a good-faith effort to re-rent, which he was required to do in my state). This wasn't in New York, but still.)
posted by leahwrenn at 3:12 PM on September 7, 2012

Plus one for Cathy Grad. I know that I've suggested her before. She's great.
posted by kimdog at 3:21 PM on September 7, 2012

The cherry on top is that when I request proof of damages and inform them that I have photos and will pursue my legal rights, they are threatening to sue me for breaking the lease

Since you have their request to leave in writing, you know that this threat of theirs is baseless, so they're trying to intimidate you into letting it go even though it doesn't make sense. So yeah, lawyer up and get your cash.
posted by davejay at 3:24 PM on September 7, 2012

I was part of a landlord-related Small Claims court case once, and I was impressed by how easy the whole process was. Even though it was just a he said/she said kind of thing, the judge ruled in our (renters) favor.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:42 PM on September 7, 2012

NYC is biased toward the tenant and your landlord is probably aware of this. In the mean time, it won't hurt to call these guys for free advice.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:46 PM on September 7, 2012

I know a good half dozen people in New York who took their landlord to small claims court to get a refund of their security deposit. It required a few mornings off of work, some paperwork that the clerks were helpful in getting filled out, and success for everyone I knew that tried this. It seems to be standard operating procedure among the scummier landlords in the city not to return the deposit unless the tenant sues.

It depends if your time or your money are more valuable, whether you should lawyer up or go the small claims route. They both have an excellent chance of success, as from what I know about NYC landlord/tenant law (not a lawyer, but a former NYC renter who liked to be very informed of her rights) all of your slimeball landlord's claims (except for the picture holes, and possibly repainting if you lived in the unit for less than two years) seem unlikely to hold up under scrutiny.

My last NYC landlord tried to keep my security deposit as a result of a probate mess involving a deceased former property manager, and the mere threat of small claims court was enough to get the check in the mail posthaste.
posted by psycheslamp at 4:48 PM on September 7, 2012

No way, small claims all the way. No judge is going to look at those facts and say "Welp, he broke the lease!" The landlords are allowing it, full stop, they can't go back and say NU UH. The lease is already broken, with their permission. I believe the legal term for why they can't hold the lease over you is "estoppel." Anyway, I'm sure NYC requires them to supply receipts and an accounting, so they'll probably fold as soon as they get served. When they do, ask for the small claims maximum in NYC for your trouble. You could probably get more outside of small claims, depending on whether things like triple-damages are allowed for this kind of thing, the landlords could be staring down a judgement of $15K+ (BS figure). Don't let them cow you, they may even offer to cut you a check the first time you ask if they mind being recorded.
posted by rhizome at 9:35 PM on September 7, 2012

or she*
posted by rhizome at 9:35 PM on September 7, 2012

It's worth at least making the landlord believe you'll go to court. File in small claims; you'll likely get payment. Also, maybe they will pause a few seconds before screwing another tenant.
posted by theora55 at 4:41 PM on September 8, 2012

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