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Landlord Liability in Nuisance Claims Pitted Against Victim Rights

Landlords have a vested interest in ridding their property of tenants who create a nuisance, as they could potentially be held legally liable if the nuisance is not abated.
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However, a tricky dilemma has arisen in a number of recent landlord-tenant disputes that pits landlord’s nuisance property claims against a victim’s right to protection.

As The New York Times reports, a number of local governments have “nuisance property” ordinances that are intended to shield neighborhoods from households that are routinely disruptive.

One ordinance in a city in Pennsylvania allows local officials to pressure landlords to move toward eviction if police have to be summoned to a rental property more than three times over the course of four months.

On the surface, this might not seem like a bad plan. However, it may be somewhat misguided, as the example outlined indicates a domestic violence victim who claims she was bullied by her abusive ex, fresh out of jail, into allowing him to live with her, for fear that if she protested or tried to call the police to have him removed, she could be evicted. They had already been to her home numerous times prior for previous alleged assaults – including the one for which he had been most recently incarcerated.

However, days later, he got drunk, started another fight and began to beat her about the head and neck with a glass ashtray. She begged her neighbor not to call 911 because she didn’t want to lose her home, which was where she stayed with her 3-year-old daughter. The neighbor called anyway. Her injuries were so severe she had to be transported for treatment via helicopter. Her ex was later convicted of aggravated assault and is serving a two-year prison stint. The victim was also evicted.

This case represents an unintended consequence of holding landlords responsible for tenant conduct.

Such cases are not unique to Pennsylvania. Recently in Batvia, New York, city council leaders were met with fierce landlord opposition to a similar ordinance that would impose heavy fines on landlords whose tenants were behind frequent police calls.

Landlords argued that eviction is not an easy process and even when successful, problem tenants have been known to trash the property once they are aware such action is imminent. Police, the landlords said, won’t arrest those tenants for criminal mischief in relation to the damage, instead citing it as a civil matter.

Similar laws holding landlords accountable for tenants also exist in Cheektowaga, outside of Buffalo, and Niagra.

In the case of the domestic violence victim, police in the small town came under fire following the eviction action. The chief responded that while sympathetic, the victim “failed to comply with instruction” to obtain a protection order against the defendant.

These kinds of ordinances became commonplace in the 1980s as a means to target communities where drug-dealing was a growing problem. Many neighborhoods wanted to slow the flight of residents from communities that were crumbling as a result.

Rental properties in general account for a disproportionately larger share of 911 calls. However, it’s one thing for a landlord to ignore that his or her property is clearly being utilized as a crack house. It’s another when three disorderly conduct calls over the course of a few months could have the owner facing stiff fines if they don’t remove the tenant.

In Illinois, where approximately 100 such ordinances exist, domestic violence helpline administrators say they regularly field phone calls from victims who are facing a choice between housing and safety.

It’s not that landlords are being heartless. It’s that these ordinances give them little choice.

Those on both sides of this coin should consult with an experienced attorney to ensure protection of their personal safety, housing stability and real estate investments.

The Law Offices of Ira S. Newman provides landlord and tenant litigation representation in New York City, Long Island, Great Neck and throughout the area. Call 516-487-7375 or send us an e-mail.

Additional Resources:
Victims’ Dilemma: 911 Calls Can Bring Eviction, Aug. 19, 2013, By Erik Eckholm, The New York Times
More Blog Entries:
Rent-Stabilized, but Storm-Damaged: An NYC Landlord-Tenant Dispute, Aug. 24, 2013, New York Landlord-Tenant Lawyer Blog