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Judge Backs Law Requiring Rent Deposits in Evictions

Posted by MikeW on November 17, 1998 at 10:36:54:

Stolen from today's NY Times:

Judge Backs Law Requiring Rent Deposits in Evictions


n a decision prompting both landlords and tenants to claim at least partial victory, a state judge has
upheld a New York State law requiring rent deposits from tenants fighting eviction, but he ruled that
the law could be challenged case by case.

The statute requires tenants to deposit their rent into an escrow account while they are contesting eviction
proceedings. It was one of the most bitterly contested provisions passed by the Legislature in June 1997
when it voted to retain the state's rent-regulation system.

The rent-deposit statute had been challenged by tenants' groups that contended that it violated the
principle of separation of powers because, they argued, in passing it, the Legislature was dictating to the
judicial branch.

In his decision, filed last Thursday, Justice Edward H. Lehner of State Supreme Court in Manhattan,
wrote, "The statutes challenged are not unconstitutional on their face, although they may under certain
circumstances be applied so as to deprive a tenant of constitutional rights, the determination with respect
to which will be made on an individual case basis."

The rent-deposit statute altered procedures in Housing Court that landlords had long contended allowed
deadbeat tenants to use the system to avoid paying rent, but that tenants' lawyers said were necessary to
give poor people the chance to fight abusive landlords. About 300,000 tenants in New York City receive
eviction papers each year and 25,000 are eventually evicted.

Two provisions of the law were challenged by the tenants in a case called Lang v. Pataki. One provision
prohibits judges from granting an adjournment in an eviction case without requiring a rent deposit. The
second prohibits judges from staying an eviction five days after a judgment has been entered unless a rent
deposit is made, a practice that judges formerly could exercise at their discretion.

One of the most frequent reasons for such action arose when a tenant on welfare had not received funds
from the Department of Social Services with which to pay rent.

Under the rent-deposit law, once an eviction proceeding is filed, the tenant must pay the rent into an
escrow account from that point until there is a ruling.

While finding the statute constitutional, Justice Lehner also wrote that he agreed, for example, that it
"could not constitutionally be applied so as to require a tenant to proceed at trial when he or she makes a
showing that it is reasonable for him or her not to be physically present in court due to illness or other
emergency such as a death or serious illness in the family.

"Therefore," he said, "since I find no other constitutional infirmity, I find that the statute is constitutional on
its face."

The tenants' groups were represented by South Brooklyn Legal Services, the Northern Manhattan
Improvement Corporation and the Legal Aid Society. Scott Rosenberg, director of litigation for Legal
Aid, said that in his view "tenants consider the decision an important victory because the court held that
the statute is unconstitutional in most of the situations that are important to tenants, for example if the
tenant is ill and unable to attend court, or if a judgment has been entered against a tenant who is on
welfare, and there was a delay in obtaining money from the Department of Social Services."

But Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, the city's largest landlord group,
said: "I think the decision is a clear victory to our position that requiring tenants to deposit disputed rents
is constitutional and enforceable."

"Our attorneys acknowledged," Strasburg continued, "that there may be very limited circumstances where
the statute should not apply -- for example, when the tenant is unavailable for health reasons or other
exigent circumstances -- but those are narrow in application, and anything that does not fall within that
small box is not a defense against depositing their rent money into court."

Rosenberg, asked if the tenants would appeal, said no decision had been made, "because in some ways
we have gotten what we want."

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