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Ask Sam: How should I handle a landlord who keeps sending me frivolous bills for his legal fees?

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Question:

I'm a rent-stabilized tenant, and my landlord keeps billing me for their legal fees, when I never received a summons or subpoena, and have not been to court. Also, their stated reason for a court case is one month's rent being late, which resulted in an attempt at eviction. I've been told to simply ignore their threats, and if summoned, go to court to resolve this. Is this the correct way to handle it, or should I get legal help now?

Answer:

You're right to be skeptical of your landlord's demands for legal fees, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. But rather than ignore the problem, it's best to let them know—in writing—that their demands are inappropriate and that you won't be paying.

"Almost all residential leases have a clause in them that says that if the landlord brings a case against a tenant and wins, then the tenant is reponsible for the legal fees," Himmelstein explains. "But it's reciprocal—meaning that if the landlord brings you to court and loses, they have to pay your legal fees, if you've incurred any."

However, this requires that a court case has actually taken place, and that your landlord has won and been awarded the fees, neither of which has happened here. "The landlord can't just take it upon themselves to say that they incurred fees, and then bill the tenant," says Himmelstein. "In order to collect those fees you have to be what is called the prevailing party." In other words, you have to have won the case.

"So unilaterally billing a tenant for legal fees is not proper," says Himmelstein. "And it's especially not proper to do it to a rent-stabilized tenant, because a rent-stabilized tenant cannot be charged any rent in excess of the legal regulated rent. And if they're adding these fees to your rent bill, it could potentially be considered an overcharge." Additionally, rent-stabilized tenants can't be evicted for failing to pay their landlord's legal fees.

Bottom line: whatever bills your landlord is sending you aren't legitimate, and shouldn't be treated as such. As with all landlord disputes, it's wise to get a paper trail going to bolster your side of the story, so Himmelstein recommends sending your landlord a letter or email objecting to the fees. "I would say, 'Your bills contain improper charges for legal fees. No court has ever awarded those fees and I have never agreed to pay them, and I demand that you remove them from my bills immediately.'" Since some landlords will send erroneous bills just to see if you'll pay them, if you push back, there's a good chance your landlord will drop the issue right away.

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Sam Himmelstein, Esq., represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph in Manhattan.  To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam or call (212) 349-3000.

 

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