With a temporary moratorium on evictions until at least June 20, 2020 (or July 26, 2020 as mandated by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act for those on federal assistance programs), New York tenants are now especially vulnerable to landlords who take the law in their own hands with self-help evictions and illegal lockouts.
Though New York housing courts are not open to most matters during the COVID-19 crisis, applications by tenants addressing illegal lockouts are currently being accepted as essential matters.
Summary Proceedings to Restore Possession
Summary proceedings to restore possession can be initiated by commercial tenants (if their leases do not authorize self-help) and residential tenants if the petitioner under NY RPAPL § 713(10):
- Has continuously occupied the premises for 30 days or more;
- Commences the action within one year of when he or she was removed with at least the implicit denial of any right to return;
- Was Illegally locked out by changing of locks, removal of property, denial of access to the premises, discontinuance of utilities, or demolition of the premises; and
- Is a tenant, and not an employee or licensee. The difference between licensees and tenants is that tenants have leases which convey absolute possession and control of the premises for a specific term and rent, subject to the landlord’s rights. Licensees, on the other hand, do not obtain exclusive possession via a lease, and their rights to possession are revocable at will and without cause.
Criminal and Civil Penalties:
New York landlords who, without a court order, evict or attempt to evict a tenant who has lawfully occupied premises for more than 30 days can be prosecuted for a class A misdemeanor which carries a maximum punishment of imprisonment of up to one year pursuant to the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 and codified by RPAPL § 768.
Such unlawful evictions also are subject to civil penalties of not less than one thousand or more than ten thousand dollars for each violation. Landlords who fail to rightfully restore possession of the premises to their tenants can be fined up to an additional $100.00 per day from the date on which restoration to occupancy is requested until the date on which restoration occurs.
NY RPAPL § 768 gives “unlawful eviction’ a broad meaning. Under the statute it can take the form of:
- Using or threatening the use of force to induce the occupant to vacate the dwelling unit; or
- Engaging in a course of conduct which interferes with or is intended to interfere with or disturb the comfort, repose, peace or quiet of such occupant in the use or occupancy of the dwelling unit, to induce the occupant to vacate the dwelling unit including, but not limited to, the interruption or discontinuance of essential services; or
- Engaging or threatening to engage in any other conduct which prevents or is intended to prevent such occupant from the lawful occupancy of such dwelling unit or to induce the occupant to vacate the dwelling unit including, but not limited to, removing the occupant’s possessions from the dwelling unit, removing the door at the entrance to the dwelling unit; removing, plugging or otherwise rendering the lock on such entrance door inoperable, or changing the lock on such entrance door without supplying the occupant with a key.
In New York City, landlords are lawfully prohibited from harassing their commercial tenants. Under the statute, harassment is defined as any act or omission that: (1) is intended to cause a commercial tenant to vacate property, or to waive any rights under a lease, and (2) includes one or more of the following:
- Using force against or making express or implied threats that force will be used against a tenant;
- Causing repeated interruptions of an essential service;
- Repeatedly commencing frivolous court proceedings against a tenant; removing personal property belonging to a tenant;
- Preventing a tenant from entering the property or changing the locks;
- Substantially interfering with a tenant’s business with unnecessary construction; or
- Engaging in any other repeated acts or omissions that substantially interfere with a commercial tenant’s business.
Landlords found to have harassed their commercial tenant are subject to monetary penalties of between $1,000 and $10,000. In addition, courts may award injunctive relief, punitive damages, and attorney fees.
Tenants removed by force or unlawful means may be awarded triple damages for property that has been lost or damaged in the eviction process, the cost of alternative accommodations, incidental damages, and the value of permanently lost tenancy under NY RPAPL § 853. Even when self-help is available in commercial leases, landlords are often hesitant to exercise the option. Corporate officers may be held personally liable if they commit or even participate in a wrongful eviction.
Contact Friedman & Ranzenhofer, PC Attorneys seven days a week if you have landlord/tenant law questions.