Ask Sam: My landlord won't renew my lease. I think he's retaliating against me, but how do I prove it?
My landlord didn't renew my lease, and I suspect it is because I complained about conditions in my apartment. How do I prove the landlord is retaliating against me?
Under current law, tenants can argue that their landlord is retaliating against them if the landlord moves to evict them or declines to renew their lease within a year of the tenant taking certain actions, like making a complaint about apartment conditions, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben & Joseph who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.
However, it's not always worthwhile to raise this argument, as it can come with consequences.
“Under the old law, if a landlord started a court case against a tenant within six months of the tenant having taken certain actions, this could be considered presumptively retaliatory,” Himmelstein says. “The tenant would have to establish that the landlord altered the terms of their tenancy or brought a court case against them within six months of the tenant doing certain things, like making complaints about conditions.”
The Housing Stability and Protection Act, passed by the New York State legislature in 2019, extended this period to a year. The new law also makes the landlord subject to paying attorney’s fees and damages to their tenant if the tenant wins. The presumption does not apply to owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units.
Retaliation can be raised as a defense if your landlord sues to evict you, and if your landlord declines to renew your lease in response to an action you took. However, even if you prevail in court, this is not a long-term solution, and could come with other consequences, like landing on the tenant blacklist. And note that a retaliation defense would be useful primarily to market-rate tenants, since rent stabilized and rent controlled tenants have many additional protections from landlord retaliation.
“If you’re a monthly tenant or your lease is about to expire, and the landlord is not going to renew because you recently complained about something, that could create the presumption of retaliation,” Himmelstein says. “But to raise this, you’d have to be willing to defend a housing court case and assert retaliation as a defense, which raises the blacklist issue.”
Another option would to sue your landlord in state Supreme Court and try to prevent them from bringing an eviction case against you on the grounds of retaliation, but that’s very difficult to do, Himmelstein adds.
Furthermore, there’s the question of what you’ll get out of a victory, if you do win in court.
“The case would be dismissed if the court finds that the landlord is acting with a retaliatory motive, and the landlord would be unable to bring another case for a year,” Himmelstein says. “But between the risk of being blacklisted and the cost of hiring an attorney, what do you get out of it? The ultimate outcome is not that you’d get to stay in the apartment forever.”
For this reason, he says, he very rarely raises retaliation as a defense in court. Instead, you might try reaching out to your landlord directly about your suspicions.
“You could try writing to your landlord, saying that his actions are clearly retaliatory, and negotiate a deal where you get more time in the apartment,” he suggests. “But for the most part, retaliation is not really an effective defense.”
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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 & 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.