Can I Sue My Landlord?
New York lawyers discuss how, why, and potential alternativesBy Nancy Henderson | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on September 26, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Samuel J. Himmelstein and Mitchell S. Zingman
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- Common Reasons Why Tenants Take Legal Action
- Rising Rental Unit Costs
- Are There Alternatives to Litigation?
- Some Rental Disputes are Easier to Solve Than Others
- Getting Your Security Deposit Back
- When to Contact an Attorney About Your Legal Issue
Mitchell Zingman recalls the distraught client who, after cultivating an enclosed garden for 30 years at her Manhattan apartment—with full permission from the owners—found the entire thing bulldozed to the ground one day by the daughter who’d inherited the place and had her own plans for the land.
“I sued the landlord, arguing that after all those years, that garden was part of her lease,” says Zingman, a real estate litigator and founder of Zingman & Associates.
“Particularly as a rent-controlled tenant, they had no right to get rid of it. I won on summary judgment, and they were compelled to give her money so she could put the garden back together.”
Common Reasons Why Tenants Take Legal Action
While most tenants don’t sue their landlords over the literal fruits of their labor, many do take legal recourse over common issues such as:
- Failure to make necessary repairs;
- The withholding of security deposits; and
- Wrongful eviction.
Many lawsuits are reactive, Zingman adds: “A lot of times, the tenants aren’t so much initiating the lawsuit as counterclaiming when they get sued for withholding rent for things like failure of the landlord to perform repairs in the apartment.”
Rising Rental Unit Costs
What’s more, says Samuel Himmelstein, a commercial and tenants’ rights litigator at Himmelstein McConnell Gribben & Joseph, many landlords are jacking up monthly rent prices after being more lenient during the pandemic.
“They’re coming back at people with a vengeance. We’re getting lots and lots of [non-rent-stabilized tenants] who contact us and say, ‘My landlord wants to increase my rent by $500 a month after years of it being the same.’”
Are There Alternatives to Litigation?
Before you charge into a legal battle, Himmelstein offers a few other options to try.
If your heat or hot water isn’t reliable, start keeping a journal with dates, times, duration, and description. Then notify your landlord in writing. Be respectful—a judge may read your letter in court if your case does go to trial.
If the landlord ignores your complaint, a state housing agency might do the heavy lifting for you. Consider filing a claim with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal if your landlord overcharges you or discontinues services like a storage area or package delivery.
“We had one case where the landlord had provided the tenants with a swimming pool, [then removed it],” Himmelstein says. “And the DHCR did a little research and determined that the monthly cost of a pool membership in the neighborhood was about $200. And they ordered the landlord to lower everybody’s rent by the cost of a pool membership.”
Some Rental Disputes are Easier to Solve Than Others
Repairs are actually among the easiest issues to resolve, the attorneys say.
A Housing Part Proceeding filed in Housing Court will usually prompt a landlord or property management to fix broken pipes or remove mold simply because the proof of damage is easily documented with photos.
“The judge pulls it up on her computer and looks at the landlord and says, ‘When are you going to fix it?’” says Himmelstein. “Ninety percent or more of those cases end up with the tenant getting an order from the court that the repairs get done.”
And no, you can’t sue for everyday annoyances, like kids running back and forth upstairs. “Now, it’s another thing if someone is blasting disco music at 4:00 in the morning,” Himmelstein says. “But when you live in a New York City apartment, you have to put up with a certain amount of [noise in your living conditions].”
Getting Your Security Deposit Back
To recoup a security deposit, which can be substantial in New York, Himmelstein recommends suing in small claims court or mediating through the state attorney general’s office.
Thanks to a 2019 state law, the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, both rent-stabilized and market-rate tenants can now file a claim in Housing Court for harassment, including threats, physical intimidation, and even relentless buyout offers.
And if you’ve been evicted without notice, call the police. It’s criminal. “The court will process it quickly because it’s considered an emergency,” Himmelstein says.
When to Contact an Attorney About Your Legal Issue
If your problems persist, contact an attorney who specializes in tenant-landlord issues for legal advice.
Pro bono advice may be available, depending on your circumstances. You can also reduce legal fees and court costs by joining forces with neighbors facing the same rental property issues.
“Pooling the resources that way kind of levels the playing field,” says Himmelstein, who had a recent success representing a group of six renters in three small, adjacent buildings in Lower Manhattan. With no defense, the landlord settled quickly, recognizing their status as rent-stabilized tenants, rolling back their rent, refunding overcharges, and reimbursing attorney fees.
To begin your search for experienced legal help, visit the Super Lawyers’ directory of landlord-tenant attorneys.
For more information about tenant legal rights and rental agreements, including the implied warranty of habitability, the right to quiet enjoyment, and landlord responsibilities, see our overview of landlord and tenant law.
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