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Jenkins v. Fieldbridge Associates

April 7, 2009

FREDDIE JENKINS, APPELLANT,
v.
FIELDBRIDGE ASSOCIATES, LLC, RESPONDENT.



APPEAL by the plaintiff, by permission and as limited by his brief, in an action to recover rent overcharges and treble damages, from so much of an order of the Appellate Term of the Supreme Court, Second, Eleventh, and Thirteenth Judicial Districts, entered February 5, 2007, as reversed a judgment of the Civil Court of the City of New York, Kings County, entered June 24, 2005, which, upon an order of the same court dated January 16, 2004, granting that branch of his motion which was for summary judgment on the cause of action to recover rent overcharges, and upon so much of a decision of the same court dated December 20, 2004, made after a hearing, as found that the defendant willfully overcharged him, and calculated the rent overcharges and treble damages due him based on a rent of $375.44 per month, was in favor of him and against the defendant in the principal sum of $22,852.06, and remitted the matter to the Civil Court of the City of New York, Kings County, for a recalculation of the rent overcharges and treble damages due him based on a rent of $449.68 per month.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Covello, J.

Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.

REINALDO E. RIVERA, J.P., MARK C. DILLON, JOSEPH COVELLO and DANIEL D. ANGIOLILLO, JJ.

(Index No. 62886/02)

OPINION & ORDER

In the instant action, the plaintiff, a tenant living in a rent-stabilized apartment, filed a rent overcharge complaint in which he alleged that the owner improperly charged and collected rent greater than the legal regulated rent fixed by a rent reduction order in effect within the four-year period preceding the filing of the complaint, but issued prior to that period. The question presented is whether the Civil Court of the City of New York, Kings County (hereinafter the Civil Court), faced with a statutory proscription against the examination of the "rental history" of the apartment prior to the four-year period preceding the filing of the complaint (CPLR 213-a), properly considered the rent reduction order in determining the existence and amount of a rent overcharge. We answer the question in the affirmative.

On May 12, 1993, numerous tenants living in rent-stabilized apartments in an apartment building complex located in Brooklyn filed an administrative complaint against the owner of the complex with the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (hereinafter the DHCR). Alleging that the owner failed to provide certain required services, the tenants sought to have their rent reduced.

In a rent reduction order effective June 1, 1993, a DHCR Rent Administrator found that the owner failed to provide certain required services, reduced the legal regulated rent on each apartment, and prohibited the owner from charging or collecting any rent increases until the DHCR issued a rent restoration order. The Rent Administrator did not fix the legal regulated rent on the apartments at particular amounts, but rather, indicated that the legal regulated rent on each apartment was "reduced to the level in effect prior to the most recent [rent] guidelines increase for the tenant's lease which commenced before" June 1, 1993.

The plaintiff was one of the complaining tenants. Pursuant to the rent reduction order, the legal regulated rent on his apartment was, in effect, fixed at $375.44 per month. However, the plaintiff, unaware of the issuance of the rent reduction order, entered into a series of leases requiring him to pay greater rent.

On or about February 26, 2002, the plaintiff, who learned about the rent reduction order a few months prior, commenced the instant action against the owner in the Civil Court, seeking to recover rent overcharges and treble damages. The plaintiff alleged that the owner willfully charged and collected rent greater than the legal regulated rent fixed by the rent reduction order, which, although more than seven years old at this point, was still in effect.

The Civil Court, taking the rent reduction order into account, awarded the plaintiff summary judgment on his cause of action to recover rent overcharges. The matter then proceeded to a hearing, after which the Civil Court found that the owner willfully charged and collected from the plaintiff rent greater than the legal regulated rent fixed by the rent reduction order. The Civil Court then calculated the overcharges and treble damages due the plaintiff based on the legal regulated rent fixed by the rent reduction order, i.e., $375.44 per month. The owner appealed.

On appeal, the Appellate Term for the Second, Eleventh, and Thirteenth Judicial Districts reversed a judgment entered in favor of the plaintiff and against the owner, and remitted the matter to the Civil Court, among other things, for a recalculation of the rent overcharges and treble damages due the plaintiff based on the rent on the plaintiff's apartment as stated by the owner in a registration statement filed with the DHCR four years prior to the filing of the complaint, i.e., $449.68 per month (see Jenkins v Fieldbridge Assoc. LLC, 15 Misc 3d 6, 7-8). However, the Appellate Term erred in so doing, as the Civil Court properly considered the rent reduction order, and properly calculated the overcharges and treble damages due the plaintiff based on the legal regulated rent fixed by that order.

A rent overcharge claim, whether made in a judicial or administrative forum, is subject to a four-year statute of limitations (see CPLR 213-a; Administrative Code of City of NY § 26-516 [a] [2]). In addition to limiting the time in which such a claim can be asserted, the Legislature has also limited the evidence that a court and the DHCR may consider in determining that claim. In this regard, CPLR 213-a, as amended by the Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997 (see L 1997, ch 116, § 34), precludes a court from examining the "rental history" of a housing accommodation prior to the four-year period preceding the filing of the rent overcharge complaint (see Myers v Frankel, 292 AD2d 575, 576). Rent Stabilization Law (Administrative Code of City of NY) § 26-516 (a) (2), as amended by the same act (see L 1997, ch 116, § 33), precludes the DHCR as well from examining that period of rental history (see Matter of Anderson v Lynch, 292 AD2d 603, 604; Matter of Silver v Lynch, ...


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