Spotlight on Unmet Need In “Broken Lease” Cases

More legal services are required to address a rise in cases attempting to make onetime tenants pay for allegedly “broken leases,” according to written testimony on the emerging issue from The Legal Aid Society and other organizations.

Landlords have been increasingly claiming they are owed back rent, legal fees and other tenancy-related charges. Yet Legal Aid’s submission to the New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice emphasized the “long-lasting and devastating effects” these “broken lease” cases can have for unrepresented litigants.

The sums at stake can be greater than most common consumer credit actions and judgments can hamper someone’s future efforts to obtain housing. The testimony, also submitted by MFY Legal Services and the Fordham Law School Feerick Center For Social Justice, noted broken lease cases are currently not deemed consumer credit actions. Therefore, people defending themselves against a broken lease case “do not have the important protections available to defendants in consumer credit actions.”

The submission said litigants included individuals who left unexpired leases because of economic hardship and then got assurances from property management companies that they could do so without any adverse consequence.

Among the problems with broken lease cases — which include improper service and inaccurate accounting — such lawsuits are often filed long after a tenant’s relocation, when key documents and other forms of proof about assurances have been discarded.

Other defendants in broken lease cases include people escaping domestic violence. The testimony recounted one instance where a woman fled her apartment to enter a domestic violence shelter. Both she and the abuser were on the lease. The abuser remained at the apartment and stopped paying rent. The landlord sued both for non-payment. The abuser was evicted but the woman was never served. The judgment appeared on her credit report and blocked her from a range of housing options.

“Enhanced and expanded legal services related to broken lease cases will benefit first and foremost low-income and other vulnerable litigants—protecting their financial wellbeing and ability to access housing in New York City’s tight market, and in many cases protecting them from homelessness,” said the written testimony, which was submitted by Tashi Lhewa, a Staff Attorney in the Civil Practice’s Queens office; Dora Galacatos, Executive Director of the Fordham Law School Feerick Center For Social Justice and Carolyn Coffey, Director of Litigation for Economic Justice at MFY Legal Services.

The trio are co-chairs of the New York City Broken Leases Task Force.