I spend a lot of my time dashing the hopes and dreams of my already-beleaguered landlord-tenant clients who come into my office looking for help getting justice. People always ask: “will you fight for me?” The answer is unequivocally yes…. but I won’t pretend there aren’t parameters. Let’s cut to the chase by getting a few unfortunate realities out of the way.
HARD TRUTH #1: The judge doesn’t care what a scumbag your landlord is. Your landlord has been harassing you for years. They offered you buyouts, failed to do repairs, tried to sneak in to take photos, pretended to lose your rent checks. Now they are falsely claiming you are a “nuisance” with trumped up allegations. Or maybe they are falsely claiming you don’t occupy the apartment as your primary residence.
Whatever your landlord has done to you in the past is not on the judge’s radar. This case is about YOU, not the landlord’s conduct. You have to defend against their allegations no matter how ludicrous or asinine you know them to be.
HARD TRUTH #2: You will never achieve vindication in Housing Court. Many tenants facing trumped-up litigation, rightfully, feel wronged. They want their landlords to pay. “How can they get away with doing this?” many ask. Some people want an apology or an acknowledgement that what the landlord is doing is bad or wrong. Other people want the landlord to be penalized financially in a meaningful way.
In reality, IF you have an “attorney’s fees” clause in your lease, then you can ultimately recover fees from the landlord if you win. But if you don’t, you are basically screwed. Having to pay tenant’s attorneys fees is the only real punishment landlords are going to face for bringing litigation that was questionable at best.
Many people also think that at least being in court means they will have the opportunity to “be heard”; that a judge will sit down and listen to what they have to say and will validate their perspective by appreciating the wrongfulness of their landlord’s behavior. But the vast majority of cases settle and usually settlement is in the interest of both parties.
HARD TRUTH #3: Everybody already knows that the case is pretextual. It’s not a secret that landlords want rent stabilized tenants gone. It’s not a secret that they can substantially raise the rent and often deregulate the apartment if you leave. In fact, courts ASSUME that landlords will “renovate” the apartment, claiming enough expense to overcome the deregulation threshold. Nobody thinks landlords do – or ought to – care about their tenants. Unfortunately, the burden is on you to disprove whatever trumped-up claims they have concocted.
HARD TRUTH #4: It’s Not Harassment. Your landlord is a huge jerk. They never answer your calls, they never do repairs. They “lose” your rent checks and then claim you haven’t paid. They dragged you to court using pretextual allegations that you know they know are untrue or exaggerated.
I would say the harassment law covers maybe 1% of the cases I see. If the landlord engages in very specific behaviors, like interrupting your electricity, locking you out, or “repeatedly” filing baseless lawsuits against you, you may have a claim for harassment. However, the penalties are so low that the impact your landlord will feel is very small compared to the amount of time, energy and legal fees you will expend proving your case.
HARD TRUTH #5: Judges Are People. I don’t want to put too fine a point on this one, but all judges are either elected – like, say, George W. Bush was – or appointed, usually in an opaque process with little to no public accountability. A committee of scholars and jurists did not sit down together and identify the smartest, most contemplative, suitable people for the job. Every profession has winners and losers. Ben Carson is a neurosurgeon; Donald Trump is a “businessman”. Not to single out Republican politicians, but sometimes the shoe just fits.
In short, being a judge doesn’t necessarily mean one is particularly smart, nice, or thoughtful. It’s all the luck of the draw and oftentimes justice literally does depend on what the judge had for breakfast.
In conclusion, if I sound cynical, it’s because I am. But my number one priority to my clients is telling them the truth. Most litigants find Housing Court to be a miserable, disempowering experience. Important caveat: the experience is much different when you have an attorney. You will rarely, if ever, have to go to court, or think much about the case as you are paying somebody to do the worrying for you. If your attorney is good, and you trust him or her, you can feel secure that your case is being presented thoroughly and aggressively, and that you’ll get the best results possible. But even then, lawyers aren’t magicians and we can never make the landlords pay as much as we really want them to.
Up Next: Part 2 of “How To Negotiate With Your Jerk Boss”.