Tenants' Rights 101: Two Egregious Breaches of the Warranty of Habitability
UPDATE: NEW YORK TENANTS MAY BE ABLE TO GET THEIR RENTS ABATED OR TEMPORARILY REDUCED IF THEIR RENTAL IS INFESTED WITH BED BUGS. PLEASE CONTACT ME FOR MORE INFO: firstname.lastname@example.org
In a previous hub, I discuss the doctrine of the Warranty of Habitability. Here, I will talk about two dramatic cases in New York where a landlord was found to be in breach of this warranty.
Disclaimer: The following should not to be construed as legal advice, but as a medium whereby tenants may increase their awareness about the rights they have as a matter of law with regard to their leasehold interest in a particular piece of property. If you are having an issue with your landlord, I suggest you seek competent counsel to ensure that your rights are properly adjudicated. The publisher of this hub and its contributors disclaim responsibility for any damages that may result from any error, inaccuracy, or omission contained herein.
Roach Sandwich? Smithline v. Monica
Smithline v. Monica (1987 WL 14296, N.Y. City Ct.1987) is an example of a particularly egregious breach of the warranty of habitability--the major problem the tenants had were cockroaches. The tenants brought as exhibits to their trial eight roach traps filled with roaches from their apartment. These traps were filled during a period of about four days. John Monica, one of the tenants, said that he had food ruined due to the roaches and described one particular incident when he made a sandwich, turned around momentarily to get something only to find his sandwich covered with roaches. Such incidents were a common occurrence for a period of about two years. Another tenant in the same building testified that his son needed medical attention to have a cockroach removed from his ear! A third tenant said that when a stove was brought in by the building manager and was turned on a hoard of cockroaches streamed from it and swarmed everywhere. An exterminator was brought in as an expert witness who said that in his professional opinion each apartment should be ‘bombed’...to clear out the cockroaches and then a follow-up spraying was needed on a regular basis to control such a severe roach problem.
This particular case is a dramatic example of the sort of scenarios that result in recoveries for tenants for breach of warranty of habitability. The infestation of rodents and roaches adversely affects the health and safety of the adults and children who reside in apartments. Conditions that adversely affect the health and safety of individuals constitute a breach of warranty. The conditions described in Smithline v. Monica were so bad that the judge allowed the tenants to recover punitive damages in addition to the ordinary measure of damages (rent abatement). The judge found that "such a perverse or obstinate failure" on the part of the landlord to discharge his duty to maintain premises fit for human habitation created a "presumption of a reckless indifference to the rights of others which is equivalent to intentional misconduct." The tenants were awarded $10,000.00 in punitive damages and additional $5,000.00 for mental distress.
A Case of Bed Bugs: Ludlow Properties, LLC v. Young
In Ludlow Properties, LLC v. Young (4 Misc.3d 515, N.Y.City Civ.Ct., 2004) the landlord of a rent stabilized apartment in Manhattan brought a nonpayment proceeding against his tenant for the nonpayment of rent for six months. The tenants as an affirmative defense asserted that the landlord breached his warranty of habitability for allowing a severe infestation of bed bugs in the apartment.
The premises in question were a studio apartment with a sleeping loft raised on a brick wall on one side of the studio room with bathroom facilities on the other. [Tenant] slept in the loft bed until he realized the premises were infested with bedbugs when in the end of June 2003 he saw a posting in the lobby of the building which read:
"ATTENTION TENANTS please be advised that the exterminator will be in the building on Saturday August 2nd between 9AM and 2PM for a special service for the bed bugs. Please remove all sheets and pillowcases from your beds. Place all dirty clothing in bags to have it cleaned. Pull all bookshelves and other fixtures away from the walls for better access to those areas ..."
Upon reading this posting, [Tenant] realized the cause of the hundreds of bite marks he had noticed on his body since mid-June 2003 and why he was often startled awake many nights during this period--there was a major bed bug infestation!
Over the next few months [Tenant] employed four methods to attempt a restful night of sleep-none of which proved effective. First he threw out his bed and all his bedding and slept on the floor after placing towels on the floor. He quickly realized this method was useless as he was still bitten hundreds of times. Next he put plastic sheeting on the floor in the sleeping area he prepared. This method proved just as useless. In the third week of August, he bought an inflatable mattress to sleep upon. Besides the mattress requiring re-inflation at least once during the night, the mattress was unacceptable as bedbugs still preyed upon his skin. Finally, since mid-September 2004, [Tenant] has been sleeping on a metal cot with a wire mesh covering. This appeared to stop the biting of the bedbugs, but as demonstrated in the court room no real comfort was possible in this less than six foot metal cot.
For the period July 2003 through December 2003 [Tenant] saw bed bugs on a regular basis. [Tenant] found bedbugs on his couch as late as December 2003. [Tenant] testified that he threw out a couch containing bed bug nests, an armoire, a shelf, books, drapes, towels, linens and clothes. [Tenant] testified that threw out everything except family heirlooms.
[Tenant] related a story about his Christmas holiday in December 2003 at his family's home in Massachusetts. He had to enter the family home through the basement, take off all his clothes and place them in a plastic bag and then seal the bag with duct tape. He then took a hot shower for a half hour and was required to wear his father's clothes all weekend to make sure he did not bring any of the nymphs into his parents' home.