August 27, 2007

Steven Sladkus Quoted by Times on Coop Issues


By Your Leave?

Q: I own a co-op in Manhattan. I am a part-time resident and have my primary residence in Florida. On several occa­sions, maintenance people have entered my apartment to fix the intercom. I nev­er gave them permission; apparently, the building had keys from the previous owner.

There is a paragraph in my lease that gives building personnel the right to en­ter the apartment in an emergency, but this was not an emergency. I do not feel comfortable having strangers going in and out of my apartment. Is this legal?

A: Steven D. Sladkus, a Manhattan co-op lawyer, said that most proprietary leases provide that entry for repairs in an apartment may be made “at any time, and without notice, in case of an emergency” or otherwise “at any rea­sonable hour of the day upon notice.”

So, he said, if the writer’s lease con­tains such provisions and if the repairs to the intercom did not constitute an emergency, as would appear likely, then the co-op should have given the share­holder notice before entering the apart­ment.

He noted that since the apartment is not the shareholder’s primary resi­dence, it is possible that he did not get the notice. And since most leases say that the shareholder must give the co­op a key to the apartment in case access is necessary, the co-op’s use of the pre­vious owner’s key would not be unrea­sonable.

Suing to Recover A Security Deposit

Q: I understand that New Jersey law re­quires landlords to return security de­posits within 30 days after tenants move

out. In my case, my landlord took more than three months to return my deposit, and only after several e-mail messages, phone calls and threats to sue.

Can I still file a complaint against the landlord for double damages? If I do, and do not win, can the landlord come after me for his lawyer’s fees?

A: Gregory Diebold, the director of litiga­tion for Northeast New Jersey Legal Services in Jersey City, said he was not aware of any cases that specifically ad­dress the writer’s question.

Mr. Diebold confirmed that New Jer­sey law provides that if a landlord doesn’t return a tenant’s security de­posit within 30 days, or does not provide the tenant with an itemized explanation of why all or part of the deposit is being withheld, the tenant is entitled to double the amount of the deposit and lawyer’s fees.

“But there are some cases that say the court can double only the amount that was wrongfully withheld,” he said. “And it would seem to me that ‘wrong­fully withheld’ would mean that the money was never returned.”

At the same time, he said, since the law provides a landlord with a specific amount of time to return the deposit, an argument can be made that the law must be taken at its face value and that the deposit is being “wrongfully with­held” if it is not returned within 30 days.

Accordingly, Mr. Diebold said, the let­ter writer could sue the landlord for double the amount of the security de­posit, but it would be up to the court to make a final determination.

He said that even if the tenant lost her suit, the court would probably not order the tenant to pay the landlord’s le­gal fees.