How to get an NY landlord to pay what they owe?
August 22, 2013 4:40 PM   Subscribe

After nearly two years of us complaining, our old New York landlord sent us a check for our security deposit. (It was more than $2k.) Surprise, it bounced. What next?

Our property manager said he would send the security deposit but didn't, despite repeated calls, emails, a certified letter (which was returned unopened), and the efforts of the NY Attorney General.

More than a year and a half later, my spouse wrote an email to the property manager and SURPRISE, he mailed us a check, and SURPRISE, it bounced. He apologized, said he'd send a money order, and has now gone incommunicado. We re-submitted the check and it bounced a second time. I have trouble understanding the property manager's behavior. Why send us a check at all if they never intended to pay us? Is the landlord in on the scam, or is it that the property manager is a big flake? And what can we do next?

--Small claims? It seems like it would be easier to get a judgement since we received the bounced check (and the apology email claiming a money order was en route). Difficulty: we no longer live near NY. It would cost $500 and a few days off work to get one of us to NY and back, and I've read that NY landlords often attempt to "postpone" small claims the day of the court case, in an effort to get people to give up.
--Just filing small claims without intending to go?
--Social ruckus? So far all our communications (except one) have been with the property manager, who is also the signee on the twice-bounced check, but we also have the landlord's name and email address, and I could contact the broker who got us into the apartment in the first place. I am also considering making a little dossier about my experience, with the evidence of the bounced check and the Attorney General's letter, and sending it to the property manager's other tenants, so they can consider whether they want to pay the last month's rent, and so they have our Attorney General complaint's serial number in case they need to file a similar complaint themselves. Difficulty: Both I and Spouse Feets are extremely conflict-averse. Also, in my experience, New Yorkers are not always the easiest people to shame.
--Debt collector? I know you lose about a third of your money this way, and it seems strange to be a tenant hiring a debt collector, but ...? Difficulty: Loss of $600~ dollars and it seems creepy.

So my question is: What do you think would be a good course of action, and why? One of these options, or a different one that I haven't thought of? I am especially interested in personal stories of things you tried that worked (or didn't). Thanks AskMe.
posted by feets to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Treble damages. IANAL, TINLA.
posted by The Michael The at 4:48 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've seen that thing about the treble damages and unfortunately I don't think it applies to us because our building was very small. I think treble damages on withheld security deposits kicks in for apartment buildings with six or more units. Unfortunately.
posted by feets at 4:49 PM on August 22, 2013

I would haunt the bank where the check was drawn and just cash it there. Confirm the funds are there, then cash.

You can file a complaint with the cops for a bad check.

You can win small claims. But it's all about collecting.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:55 PM on August 22, 2013

I don't think the number of units in the building affects your ability to collect treble damages on an unlawfully withheld security deposit. The number of units in the building affects the requirement to hold security deposits in an interest-bearing account.
posted by slkinsey at 4:58 PM on August 22, 2013

I would call the small claims in NY and see what your options are. I sued my landlord in MT, the property was based in MT, but she was based in ME.

Basically, the way it works (at least in MT across states to ME) is you file the claim. They have a certain amount of time to respond after being served the papers by an official court officer of sheriff or whatever. These papers include anything that you would submit to the judge, and any evidence. If they don't respond, then you can have a court date with the judge, alone, unless they show up. If you show up, and they don't, then it's usually settled in your - the plaintiff's - favor by default. If they do show up, then they would need a really good story of why they broke the law.

I also filed for inability to pay the court fees. I also included the $75 service fee in what she owed me, that the ME department charged, as they didn't honor out of state inability to pay.

She eventually sent the check, I deposited it, then called her bank and got them to get her on the line to confirm that they could tell me that the check went through. It did. I ended up moving and didn't have a chance to close the case officially, but I got my money.

Steps I did prior to taking her to court:

-Emails back and forth. (Including letting her know early that we were moving, and she by LAW must pay us by X-date.) She said she would, then didn't.

-Certified letters - twice I think - that required a signature stating that she was in violation of the law, and if we didn't hear back or get a check or cashiers check by X date, we would go to court.

-She claimed she sent a check, but we never got one, obviously, and I told her again (via email) that we would take her to court unless we got our money and verified that it was deposited. (She wanted to do PayPal but that seemed sketchy to me.)

-We called, often. She had 2 numbers that we had. One always had her inbox full. I googled and tracked down office numbers. We called those work numbers also and left messages.

-My dad found a Facebook page for a company she worked for, posting "Give my daughter her money back" (Pretty funny, not sure how effective it was, although it would inform people she worked with potentially that she was not being honest.)

-She claimed she was "on vacation" even though the dates she said she was out still left weeks of time on either end to get our correspondance.

-I printed our ALL the emails, bank statements, certified letters, copies of returned postage, everything and took it to court. They made copies. I filed my inability to pay. I sent a giant packet of papers to ME. The court lady had a horrible time tracking her down in ME (also not a surprise.)

-In the end, I got my money. It did take over 2 or 3 months, though.

It seems that the relentlessness of me giving her the full show that I wouldn't back down is what made her give it to us. Again, if it would have gone to court I doubt she would have showed up. Then she would have gotten a court order to deliver the money. Not sure of the steps past that if they can't deliver - also why you should talk to your local court. They gave me good advice when I wasn't sure how to procede.
posted by Crystalinne at 5:01 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

what Crystalinne said. if you're tenacious you can get it. I'm a non-practicing lawyer, so it may have been easier for me to navigate the process (especially the judgment collection process), but there are enough guides for laypersons that it should be doable with a little elbow grease.

(I had to go to central jersey on the bus to get to my court date, so I understand the cost / benefit calculus you're going through)
posted by jpe at 5:21 PM on August 22, 2013

I'm with Ruthless Bunny. Before, he was a deadbeat. Writing a bad check makes it criminal.
posted by yclipse at 5:50 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


(NYS 190) mentions criminal penalties.
It seems like the landlord just dug a deeper hole by writing a bad check. Possibly one last letter stating you are going to turn the matter over to the cops if they don't make good?

If you went the civil route, it looks like there are "damages" associated that that would more than cover your travel, assuming you do ever get anything.
posted by rudd135 at 6:03 PM on August 22, 2013

Isn't it against the law to write a bad check?

This may be criminal, rather than civil. I would write a nastygram giving him a reasonable amount of time to make good, and if he fails to follow through, take it to the cops.
posted by cedar at 7:10 PM on August 22, 2013

Response by poster: FWIW Spouse Feets came home and said the reason we don't think we qualify for treble damages is because we talked to an NY lawyer about it more than a year ago. He said that the idea of treble damages is floating out there, but that he was unable to find it in the code. Of course, he could have been wrong. I can't find a legal citation for it one way or the other. (And yes, I was mashing up the "interest-bearing account"/"six-unit apartment building" idea with the "treble damages"/"six-unit apartment building" idea -- good catch sikinsey.)

I think Ruthless Bunny probably has it about the check -- I mean, the best a judge can give me is a judgement, which could be equally uncashable. I am 3000 miles from the property manager's bank, though, which makes haunting his bank difficult. We could keep re-running the check because eventually an NYC brokerage OUGHT to have some money in it, but it costs us a bounced check fee each time and might eventually annoy my spouse's credit union.

Do you think the NYC police would actually follow an issue like this up?
posted by feets at 10:33 PM on August 22, 2013

your bank should be able to just call their bank to verify funds.

I saw treble mentioned in NYCRR law re subletting, but I doubt it applies (found via the NY AG PDF on renters rights)
posted by jpe at 4:33 AM on August 23, 2013

I used to have to collect on (potentially) bad checks. My method? Call the bank as soon as it opens every morning and verify funds. If the funds were there then I drove to the bank immediately and cashed the check. Sometimes it took a couple of weeks to get the cash.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 4:42 AM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

You haven't been in touch with the landlord at all? I think they would want to know their property manager is a lying thief. They might be in on the scam, or they might help you put on more pressure.
posted by barnone at 5:46 AM on August 23, 2013

Threaten to file a suit in small claims court.

I once did this with a landlord; wrote a nastygram threatening to sue in small claims court, even got the forms... but the threat of a lawsuit was enough that I had not only a check but a certified check in my hands the next day. I'm not sure what would have happened had I actually filed the small claims motion.

Then again, the property was in Boston, the landlord was in Boston, and I had only moved to another town about 30 minutes away from Boston, so YMMV.

IANAL. However, I'd suggest you call New York State Small Claims Court and ask what you should do. I think, in many cases, if you win the suit, the court pays you in short order, and then the court takes care of later collection from the landlord so you don't have to worry about it.
posted by tckma at 8:16 AM on August 23, 2013

Response by poster: I am thinking of pursuing a few of these options simultaneously. My favorite is the check re-cashing after verifying funds. I just wish we were near his bank so we could cash the check quickly once funds are verified on the account. Have any of you ever had to do this through a second bank?
posted by feets at 12:06 PM on August 24, 2013

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