Landlords Can Evade Fed Ruling Against Three-day Evictions
City Limits, Dec. 21, 1998
By Kathleen McGowan

Last week, tenants celebrated a federal court decision that provided a whole new arsenal of legal weapons against unscrupulous landlords-and the apparent abolition of the infamous 72-hour eviction notice. But the tenant bonanza may be a bust.

By giving renters the same protections as other deadbeat debtors, the December 9 ruling in federal appeals court effectively outlaws the Housing Court procedure of issuing three-day notices of eviction. The decision orders that tenants be given at least 30 days advance notice of their landlord's intention to boot them out.

But there's a catch-a big one. Because of the way the federal debtor's law is worded, the decision only applies to tenants if a landlord's attorney personally signs off on the court documents. If a landlord wants to push for a three-day eviction all he has to do is sign, seal and deliver the documents himself.

"In the end, the decision means nothing," said Dan Margulies of the Community Housing Improvement Program, a trade association for small landlords. "It has already become routine practice for owners to sign the three-day notice themselves. It's an annoyance-I think the way its been reported will probably confuse a lot of tenants, and perhaps result in them being in court unnecessarily."

But the ruling isn't a complete wash for tenants. According to attorney James Fishman, who filed a brief on the case, the court order also forces landlords to comply with consumer laws which govern the tactics used by debt collectors. By widening the definition of debt, the decision makes it possible for attorneys to fight dishonest landlords as they would other collection agents.

"There's a statute in New York State that prohibits businesses from engaging in deceptive practices," said Fishman. "I've used it for 15 years against landlords, with mixed success. This will help."

As an example of the kind of cases that could now be brought, Fishman described a victory he won against a landlord who had wrongly charged $100 late fees to all the tenants in his building. Now that tenants are considered consumers under the debt collection law, he explained, the deception statute would be much easier to use in a Housing Court case--"you can attack them on behalf of everybody, and go after him with an injunction."

Under the court decision, explained Fishman, "a debt is any civil claim a consumer is presented with. It gives the right to bring a lawsuit and class action if [the debt collectors] violate even a minimum part of the statute. It makes debt collectors act more responsibly, when they have a long history of acting irresponsibly."