I once represented a man who was facing eviction. At the time, I was working for a legal services department in a social services organization. Part of our work was representing tenants, and all our clients were people who lived on fixed incomes and would not be able to afford to pay an attorney. Our clients came in through an intake process, and we only represented a few.
At the time, we were not able to represent everyone because we did not have the resources, and people facing eviction did not have a right to legal counsel. The right to counsel is usually associated with criminal defendants under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but not in civil matters. It is only recently that there has been progress in New York City, where the COVID eviction moratorium has produced what is expected to be an avalanche of eviction proceedings. Now it is possible for low income tenants to have an attorney represent them when facing eviction in Housing Court.
But back then it was different. So many people represented themselves against their landlords. My client had done so, and the landlord’s attorney knew him from many prior lawsuits. My client, I found out, was considered a character around the court house. He was a tall man, with the wispy long mustache of an eighteenth century gentleman. He wore a long heavy coat year-round with a beret and scarf, and carried an unmistakeable smell of garlic. He was definitely not to be confused with the famous 70’s rock star, who shared his name, and had hit after hit with his legendary band. No, my client was sued almost yearly for not paying his rent. His reasons were sometimes legitimate, usually having to do with poor conditions in his apartment, which the landlord would claim were not his fault. But sometimes my client would disappear for long periods, triggering more lawsuits. He would explain he was out of the country, but refuse to say where. He raised eyebrows, earned the scorn of his adversaries, but always prevailed against his landlord. He would come up with the money and settle the case. He never seemed agitated, and spoke in almost a whisper.
This particular occasion was different. This time the landlord’s attorney had a different cause of action. This time, the eviction proceeding was based not on money owed but on an allegation that the apartment was being sublet illegally to my client. In New York City, a landlord has the right to approve a sublettor. Upon researching the prior dockets, I realized my client was paying very little rent and living in a very desirable building in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. To me, this case seemed the landlord’s most recent attempt to remove a troublesome tenant and make a lot more money.
The landlord’s theory was that my client had sublet the apartment from the original tenant for decades, from before the current landlord owned the property, and that the original tenant was gone, and my client had remained in the apartment all this time. In other words, my client was not the leaseholder, the person with the right to live in the apartment, but a usurper. The proof offered was the the name of the original tenant on old rent receipts.
My work began right away with a client interview. I took him to a private room. He did not want to meet in the interview room, but in the cafeteria where free meals were served, or outdoors. He did not want our conversations to be recorded secretly. When I asked him why he thought this might be the case, he pointed at the ceiling.
Very well. We could meet where he liked. But even in the cafeteria, he was still reluctant to discuss the allegations. I asked him if they were true, and he said no. I told him, Well, then, we have nothing to worry about. All we have to do is explain.
It was not as simple as that. My client did not really wish to explain, he told me, because he was afraid of what might happen if he talked. I told him I was his lawyer, that whatever he said to me would be protected, and that he could take his time in telling me, but that we had to go to court eventually with some sort of explanation.
Did he know what had happened to the original tenant? He answered me that it was his apartment and the old tenant was gone. I said I thought that the landlord might be able convince the judge to evict him for living there without the landlord’s permission if the old tenant had left. My client appeared to consider this, and told me it was his apartment. I asked him if he could show that he had lived there for those many years, and he told me yes, he could. From so long ago? That’s very good, I said. Let’s start there. Yes, he answered. My client was also a bit of a hoarder, a lucky thing in this case, but probably a different lawsuit to come.
But I don’t want to show anyone, he said. I see, I answered. Not even to me? I asked. Maybe, he replied. Well then, can you tell me what you’re afraid I will see? I’d like to tell you, he said. Okay, why don’t you think about it, and we can talk in a couple of days? He agreed.
In the meantime I filed a denial of the allegations and a court date was set for about a month later.