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Caracaus v. Conifer Central Square Associates

Supreme Court of New York, Fourth Department

December 22, 2017

EUNICE M. CARACAUS, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
CONIFER CENTRAL SQUARE ASSOCIATES, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT. (APPEAL NO. 1.)

          WALTER D. KOGUT, P.C., FAYETTEVILLE (WALTER D. KOGUT OF COUNSEL), FOR DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

          LEGAL SERVICES OF CNY, INC., SYRACUSE (ERIC TOHTZ OF COUNSEL), FOR PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT.

          PRESENT: CENTRA, J.P., PERADOTTO, NEMOYER, TROUTMAN, AND WINSLOW, JJ.

          OPINION

          NeMoyer, J.

         Appeal from an order of the Oswego County Court (Walter W. Hafner, Jr., J.), dated January 23, 2013. The order denied the motion of defendant to dismiss the amended complaint.

         It is hereby ORDERED that the order so appealed from is unanimously affirmed without costs.

         We hold that, after a tenant successfully defends an action commenced by his or her landlord, the tenant may commence a new plenary action against the landlord to recover the attorneys' fees to which he or she may be entitled under Real Property Law § 234.

         FACTS

         Defendant (hereafter, landlord) owns and operates a low-income apartment complex in the Village of Central Square, Oswego County. Plaintiff (hereafter, tenant) rented an apartment in this complex. The lease included the following clause:

         "If [landlord] is forced to evict [tenant], [tenant] shall pay [landlord] the expense incurred in obtaining possession of the apartment and all other damages sustained by [landlord], including attorneys' fees " (emphasis added).

         It is undisputed that this clause triggered Real Property Law § 234, which confers upon tenants the "same benefit [to attorneys' fees as] the lease imposes in favor of the landlord" (Matter of Duell v Condon, 84 N.Y.2d 773, 780 [1995]). [1]

         The parties' relationship evidently soured, and the landlord commenced a summary eviction proceeding against the tenant in the Central Square Village Court. In the "wherefore" clause of her answer, the tenant included a boilerplate, one-line request for attorneys' fees, but she identified no legal theory for that request. The landlord concedes that this cursory request for attorneys' fees did not constitute a counterclaim under Real Property Law § 234. The Village Court conducted a hearing and rendered a judgment evicting the tenant, but the Oswego County Court (Hafner, J.) ultimately reversed and dismissed the eviction petition. No further proceedings were conducted in connection with this eviction petition.

         Approximately one month after the reversal, the landlord filed a new summary eviction petition against the tenant in Village Court. The tenant again included a boilerplate, one-line request for attorneys' fees in the "wherefore" clause of her answer; the landlord again concedes that this cursory request for attorneys' fees did not constitute a counterclaim under Real Property Law § 234. The second petition was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict in the tenant's favor.

         The tenant then commenced the instant action against the landlord in County Court, seeking $25, 000 in attorneys' fees in connection with both eviction proceedings. In her amended complaint, the tenant explained that "[b]ringing such an action is preferable to a motion or proceeding in the Village Court... since the jurisdictional limit of the amount awardable in the Village Court might otherwise be held to bar much of the legitimate expense incurred herein and contemplated to be awardable by [section 234]" (see UJCA 202, 208 [monetary jurisdiction of Town and Village courts generally limited to $3, 000]).

         The landlord, citing 930 Fifth Corp. v King (42 N.Y.2d 886 [1977]), moved to dismiss the instant action under CPLR 3211 (a) (7), arguing that the New York courts have "long held... that attorneys' fees for one action may not be sought in a separate action such as this." "Pursuant to that Court of Appeals authority, " the landlord reasoned, the amended complaint "fails to ...


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