How do I get an honest cut of my security deposit back?
August 28, 2007 11:21 AM   Subscribe

How do I get back a security deposit in New York City nearly a year after vacating?

(Posting for my roommate)

A little less than a year ago I moved out of an apartment. Upon leaving the apartment, my landlord told me that she could not return my security deposit because she had to have some repairs made to the hallway (a few scrapes and nicks in the wall, nothing more than 2 inches long or more than an 1/8 of an inch deep).

I made a few visits to her place over the next few months giving her my phone # multiple times and my new address. I lost her phone #, but as I knew her address I sent her another letter once I moved informing her of my new address. I know she received the letter because she forwarded me some tax info that had been sent to her address. I figured that a refund check was also on the way. It was around this time I lost her # and got very busy.

Fast forward to about a month ago, I finally very much require that she returns my security deposit. After calling her multiple times over a three weeks period, always leaving a message or being told to call back at a more convenient time, yesterday she informed me that she would only be returning $300 of my $1200 deposit. When I asked why, she informed me that between me and the next tenant she had to have the walls patched up and repainted, despite the next tenant being partially responsible.

She is trying to charge me for the full amount of this patching as well as having her entire three story hallway repainted. I feel that this is an injustice and now I realize it has been almost a year and I feel that my time to file a small claims suit is rapidly dwindling. I just wanted to know if I should try and resolve this with her or give up and file a claim. I am not that wealthy and am weary of a long extensive court battle.

posted by gaelenh to Work & Money (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Step one: Send her a letter.

Your letter will be slightly different than the one I described in that post, but you will describe the situation, provide a copy of your lease, and make a demand for an itemized list, with copies of the underlying invoices from the contractor, detailing the charges. Include copies of your prior letters, which I'm sure you've retained in your file, as well as documentation of any telephone calls.

Did she admit to you on the phone "Between you and the next tenant I had to have the walls patched up and repainted, despite the tenant after you being partially responsible"? If so, reference that admission in your letter. But if, as I suspect, it's your ASSUMPTION that the second tenant was partially responsible, you're going to have a really hard time. I don't think you have grounds to demand, for example, a copy of the next tenant's lease to compare the date of repairs to the next tenant's lease date (i.e. if repairs were done after next tenant moved in, it would be hard for LL to claim they were your fault, but how will you assert when the next tenant moved in?).

Absent an admission, or really obvious clear-cut evidence that some or all of the charges are not your fault, you're only going to get back money that she does not have an invoice to back up. That is, if she has invoices that add up to $900, the best you will do is the $300 she offered, perhaps plus interest. My recollection tells me that unless it's obviously insanely egregious (either because a new screw is charged at $900, or because the contractor/payee of the invoices was the landlord herself or a relative), you will be stuck accountable for whatever the costs were, even if they were a bit steep.

You really dropped the ball by letting it go this long, I don't see you having a lot of luck here.
posted by bunnycup at 11:40 AM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Immediately go to the City division that handles landlord-tenant disputes. If rent stabilized, go to Dept of Housing and Community Renewal. The in-town number is (718) 739-6400. Otherwise call the Dept of Housing Preservation and Development (dial 311).

I don't know the Statute of Limitations in NYC, but in some places its a year. You say its been just under a year, so you need to get on it, like, today.

Many municipalities have these divisions. They are great to get help resolving such disputes. State your case in one sentence to anyone who picks up the phone (i.e., "My landlord withheld more money from my security deposit than she was entitled to.") You may need to get transferred or referred a few times, and this will encourage people to direct you to the right place.
posted by letahl at 12:39 PM on August 28, 2007

In PA, the landlord must supply a written list of damages within 30 days of move-out. If they don't provide the list, they can't keep any of the security deposit. But I can't seem to find whether NYC has a similar regulation.
posted by desuetude at 12:44 PM on August 28, 2007

Go down to small claims court, with a copy of your lease in hand. When you talk to the small claims advisor (this is roughly analogous to have a lawyer, if there were lawyers in small claims), look for the phrase "jointly and severally". You need to know how it affects your claim. IANAL but understand it to mean that your landlord did have the right to collect the (collective) tenants' debt from any of you; i.e. that your legal beef isn't with her but with the co-tenant who should have reinbursed you their share of the debt.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:14 PM on August 28, 2007

Oh, and do file the claim. You need that to keep the option open if you're nearing the filing deadline. It doesn't prevent you from continuing to negotiate personally at the same time. If fact, it's good leverage for keeping the other party motivated to deal with you rather than leaving it up to the court's discretion.

I am not that wealthy and am weary of a long extensive court battle.

Small claims is dirt cheap, pretty straightforward, and quick. Fees should be under $100, and the loser can be made to pay the winner's fees back. Total turnaround is likely a month or so, most of it just waiting for your court date to roll around. It's mainly an exercise in gathering paperwork (i.e. letters you sent her, records of the call you made, copy of the lease, any photos you took of the damage, etc.). Dull and somewhat tedious, yes; but overall, "extensive court battle" is not what small claims is for.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:23 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Step 1 - Send a polite certified letter asking for your deposit and an itemized, dated receipt for the repairs.
Step 2 - If no response, send a second letter restating the situation, including a promise to file suit if the problem isn't remedied in 30 days time.
Step 3 - Small claims. In Ohio, a situation like yours would garner 2x your initial security deposit (and potentially your court fees)
posted by B-squared at 5:56 PM on August 28, 2007

Joint and several liability could not possibly have LESS to do with this issue. Yes, that's speaking as a lawyer in the state of jurisdiction. That was a BAD answer. People who give legal advice and have no idea what they are talking about should keep quiet, I've said before and sadly have cause to say again.

J&S is a TORT issue, and this is not a tort claim. Sorry my $100k law school education came in handy there as compared to the layman and his Google.
posted by bunnycup at 8:03 PM on August 28, 2007

I don't know about NYC, but in Iowa (which uses the uniform landlord and tenant act used by several states) a landlord must return a deposit in 30 days, or give you an itemized list in thirty days. If they fail to do that, they definitely need to give back the security deposit. I think this is actually a modification of the Uniform landlord and tenant act, though.

Anyway, good luck.
posted by delmoi at 9:21 PM on August 28, 2007

bunnycup, when did "joint and severally liable" stop having anything to do with contract law in New York? I can even find cases (CBS Outdoor Group v. Ernest Lawrence Group) where a judge has ruled that a "jointly and severally liable" clause was effective in the way that one would expect it to be.

To gaelenh's roomate: it is important to know whether you had any roommates when you were in the previous apartment.
posted by grouse at 2:20 AM on August 29, 2007

J&S does not apply because under the facts as I read and understand them, only ONE person (the landlord) has an obligation to return the security deposit.

J&S is a concept that applies when two people are jointly obligated on a contract (such as a joint loan or, in the case cited, a joint obligation to perform), and so yes, point taken it applies to a contractual issue in that way and I spoke to soon in ruling out the application to contracts overall. Much more commonly, and the meaning I assumed was being gotten at, is that J&S comes into play when multiple people in a chain of events contribute to a tort harm - which requires a showing that each defendant has committed the elements of the tort. This is not that kind of claim.

Even if you assume the most favorable facts for OP and thus believe that a portion of the repairs result from damages caused by a later tenant, OP still has no cause of action against that tenant, and thus OP's action would lie directly and only against the landlord. No one yet has made any suggestion as to HOW J&S out to apply to this case - who is the second target defendant and on what grounds are they liable to OP? I don't understand where this "collective" tenants is coming from - the OP does not indicate there were any other parties on the lease, but appears to me to be speaking about a tenant whose separate lease commenced after his ended.
posted by bunnycup at 5:33 AM on August 29, 2007

I don't think anyone is arguing that that gaelenh's friend can go after a later tenant, merely confusion about whether the later tenant was actually a joint tenant with gaelenh's friend earlier. I agree with you bunnycup, in that this seems unlikely given the description. However, if it were just badly described and gaelenh's friend was in a joint tenancy, then it might go some way to explaining why the landlord is acting the way she is.
posted by grouse at 6:01 AM on August 29, 2007

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