As we’ve said in several cases of the week, hoarding is probably one of the most difficult issues to deal with in property management. About a year and a half ago, we wrote about this issue when examining a decision filed on May 30, 2017, that was initially filed in Bronx Housing Court. The decision was appealed. This case of the week examines the result of that appeal.
To give readers a refresher, here is the case history:
The two tenants, Bienvenida DeJesus and Carlos DeJesus, had been living in a housing project regulated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and subsided by Section 8 benefits since 1998. Prior to and during the proceeding, it was clear that both tenants faced different degrees of impairment. Carlos, age 73, relies on a cane, crutches, or a wheelchair to move around. Bienvenida, age 54, has a cognitive impairment.
In June 2015, the landlord filed a notice of termination due to a breach of contract. In the petition, the corporate landlord claimed that the couple did not keep their apartment in a condition that was safe or sanitary. The apartment’s condition both attracted vermin, such as bedbugs, and posed a fire hazard. Furthermore, the tenants had failed to clean up to allow an exterminator to effectively treat the unit.
In September 2015, the Housing Court appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL) for the two tenants. The GAL signed three stipulations on behalf of the tenants. The first, dated October 22, 2015, agreed to improve conditions in the unit to a degree that would allow the landlord to bring in an exterminator. Failure to clean, the stipulation said, would result in eviction.
Cleanup did not occur in the time specified in the first stipulation. On December 9, 2015, a second stipulation was signed allowing tenants more time to comply with the terms outlined in the October stipulation.
Once again, said cleanup did not occur in the specified time. Consequently, a third stipulation, dated January 6, 2016, was signed. This stipulation said that the apartment would be cleaned and ready for a visit from an exterminator on January 11, 2016.
The tenants failed to comply with the third stipulation, as well.
With eviction imminent, the tenants obtained legal counsel. This attorney then filed a motion to vacate the stipulations, arguing that the GAL did not have the authority to act on behalf of the tenants and that the tenants had, therefore, never consented to the stipulations. On April 18, 2016, the court denied this motion, at which point Adult Protective Services [APS] became involved via article 81 proceeding.
By an order dated April 26, 2016, the court appointed Self Help Community Services, Inc. as the tenants’ temporary guardian under New York's Mental Hygiene Law. Self Help Community Services, Inc. was then ordered to immediately clean the apartment and rid it of any vermin. Pending the treatment to the apartment, the eviction was stayed. Following a heavy-duty cleaning of the apartment, a representative from the Human Resources Administration found no evidence of either bedbugs or cockroaches during a June inspection. Consequently, the tenants were granted further stay until August 12, 2016.
Before the stay expired, the tenants filed a motion to dismiss the judgment of possession and warrant of eviction. They claimed that the conditions in the apartment had improved and that the underlying reason for the action had been resolved. The landlord opposed this motion as untimely, as the apartment was still evidently messy (although not Collyer’s Mansion bad) and the tenants had ordered the individual responsible for inspecting the unit for vermin to leave before a complete inspection could be completed. The court sided with the landlord and denied the motion on October 31, 2016.
Both the April 18, 2016 decision and the October 31, 2016 decision were appealed. By an order filed on June 6, 2017, the Appellate Term, First Department, affirmed both decisions. This decision was appealed.
On December 27, 2018, the Appellate Division, First Department, modified the Appellate Term decision, and granted “respondents’ motion to vacate the final judgment of possession and for a permanent stay of the warrant of eviction to the extent of granting a temporary stay of the warrant of eviction and remanding the matter to the Civil Court for a hearing on whether to permanently stay the eviction.” The court affirmed the April order.
The reasoning behind the modification is that the landlord and the Housing Court failed to prove that the bedbug infestation in the apartment had spread to adjacent units or that it posed a serious threat to the health and well-being of said neighbors. Furthermore, the Appellate Department found that it was unfair for the Housing Court judge to claim, without a hearing or a full evaluation by the article 81 guardian, that the tenants did not have the ability to keep their apartment in a condition that would not pose a threat to the health and well-being of neighbors.
The court also felt as though reasonable accommodation should be given to the tenants, as they have handicaps as recognized by the Fair Housing Act. The court wrote, “A landlord does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation if it puts other tenants at risk, but should consider whether such risks can be minimized.” The court continued: “Housing Court failed to consider whether with ongoing supportive services and suitable monitoring tenants can continue to live an orderly existence in the apartment without harming or affecting their neighbors.”
What to take away: Even when you do everything by the books and time is of the essence, the courts won’t work very quickly on your behalf. It is likely that a case this straightforward could have been handled quickly, albeit more expensively, in Supreme Court.
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