Landlord-Tenant “Corporate Slumlording” Suit May Go Class Action
I had lunch with some lawschool buddies this weekend. Nerds as we are, our conversation eventually shifted to a discussion of landlord-tenant law, and the recently-filed case against Pinnacle Group. Nine angry tenants in Harlem are suing the company for engaging in "corporate slumlording," listing off numerous abuses that make their case very provacative. The New York Post has an article discussing the possible expansion of this lawsuit into a class action:
"September 16, 2007 -- A civil-racketeering lawsuit against one of the city's most notorious slumlords may be upgraded to a class action, adding thousands of angry tenants to the fight against the company, lawyers said yesterday.
The original suit against Pinnacle Group and its chief officer, Joel Wiener, was filed in July by a group of Harlem residents. It accused the giant of "corporate slumlording" by turning out more than 5,000 eviction notices in two years and breaking rent-stabilization laws." (Read Full Article)
During our discussion, one friend posed the question of why these tenants have put up with such conditions for so long... Why did they move in in the first place? Why did they not move out as soon as this started happening? Essentially, couldn't the tenants have avoided this? Another friend noted that many people simply cannot find both adequate and affordable housing. For many people--people who work full time to support their families, mind you--there is simply no good choice. They must choose between homelessness and a bad, sometimes terrible, housing situation.
Tenants say Pinnacle has engaged in harassing activities like: collecting illegal rents, failing to make repairs and fix housing code violations, wrongful eviction practices including not accepting rent and then claiming non-payment of rent, and having building superintendents make inadequate repairs or false promises to make repairs. Without access to the civil justice system, through which tenants can hold landlords responsible for the above listed activities, the bleak reality is that many people would have to just live with it.
Regulatory agencies can only do so much. In the Pinnacle case, for example:
"[T]he City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) website currently lists multiple apartments under Pinnacle management with a slew of long uncorrected violations, including multiple "impairing" rent and hazardous violations such as inadequate fire exits, lead-based paint, and lack of heat and hot water. Many of these hazardous "Class C" violations have not been addressed for years, despite the fact that the Housing Maintenance Code requires owners to correct Class C violations within 24 hours." (Emphasis added)
The initial plaintiffs' good fortune in finding (and diligence in searching for) a pro bono attorney, along with the possibility of a class action, create a ray of hope for Pinnacle Group tenants. Unfortunately, many tenants cannot obtain pro bono counsel or their case lacks the potential of expanding to a class action, and thus provides less incentive for attorneys to take them on under contingency arrangements. These people are just out of luck under the current system.
Perhaps, then, this issue will once again provide occasion to consider the need for a civil right to counsel in important civil matters, such as those pertaining to access to adequate housing.
Andrew Scherer, Executive Director of Legal Services for New York City, has already discussed this in the context of eviction proceedings. In his article, Why People Who Face Losing Their Homes in Legal Proceedings Must Have a Right to Counsel, he notes that most families and individuals facing eviction in New York City cannot afford a lawyer. He continues: "Like one's liberty and custody of one's children, having a home is one of the most important and fundamental human needs that may be in jeopardy in legal proceedings."
We'll keep track of this case as it develops.