Francisco A. Laguna
After college, my little cousin moved to New York City and rented her first apartment in young, hip Alphabet City. The place was a dump: the stove had a hole on the top of it; the windows were drafty and didn’t have brackets for the window A/C; the cabinet paint was peeling. But, at $ 1,650 / month for 165 sq ft, how could she resist?! The enchantment soon wore off.
My cousin unfortunately rented from the classic, stereotypical slum lord – he was right out of central casting. When she asked him to replace the stove, he told her he would have to increase the rent. After 7 months of knowing that she had a cat, he threatened to evict her for having a pet. My cousin fought back on each count and eventually got the new stove and was able to stay in the apartment through the duration of her lease.
After the evident bad blood between them, my cousin assumed that the slum lord would find an excuse not to return her security deposit. She decided to apply her security deposit against her last month’s rent.
In consequence, the slum lord sued her in small claims court. Initially, the claim was for $ 1,750 (last month’s rent plus $ 100 late fee). Then, he raised it to the maximum $ 5,000, alleging that she caused such damage to the apartment that it had to be completely renovated.
My cousin was scared and intimidated. The slum lord would not provide any evidence of the damages, always telling her that he would see her in court. I was concerned because one never knows what a judge will decide, and this was my cousin’s first experience with the justice system. I hoped that the experience would be positive for her, despite the psychological and emotional stress the lawsuit was causing.
At court, the parties were offered the option to arbitrate. He refused because the arbitral decision would be final and not subject to appeal. The slum lord, as plaintiff, presented his case first, proffering pictures of the damaged apartment and an invoice for the renovation. My cousin then presented her case, showing photographs of the apartment when she took possession and when she vacated.
The judge asked the slum lord for proof of payment of the renovation invoice. Turns out the renovation was done by in-house people, so the invoice was not an invoice. The judge noted that the cabinet paint was peeling when my cousin moved in, and the fact that she re-painted the cabinets improved the condition of the apartment. Then the judge asked whether the slum lord had, indeed, changed the cabinets for the new tenant. Response: the new tenant moved in immediately, and he did not have time to change the cabinets prior to his moving in. Turns out that, 8 months later, the cabinets had still not been changed.
Last week, the judge dismissed the case. The experience was difficult but invaluable for my cousin. She learned that the justice system can work and that dishonest people can be held responsible for their actions. She learned to prepare her arguments, practice and anticipate counter-arguments. She learned that she can be her best advocate. I am proud of her.
How many of you have similar stories?