Rent debt collectors can no longer send tenants a notice of eviction without also informing them of their rights to challenge that debt, a federal judge ruled recently.
The decision clarifies the landmark 1998 case of Romea v. Heiberger & Associates, which extended to tenants the rights of consumers under the Federal Debt Collections Practices Act. The Romea ruling required that debt collectors, upon issuing a 72-hour notice that they will begin eviction proceedings for unpaid rent, give tenants notice of their rights to challenge their debt within 30 days. They must also give tenants written evidence that they actually owe the debt, should they request it.
Since that decision, however, some debt collectors and landlords have tried to skirt those requirements by having the landlord sign the eviction notices. The landlords, they claim, are not debt collectors, so the federal law does not apply. The result: Tenants unnecessarily spend time and money fighting their eviction in housing court.
But that practice will no longer fly, ruled Judge Richard Conway Casey of the Southern District Court a few weeks ago. Responsibility for informing residents of their rights lies with whoever prepares the eviction notice, said Casey, whether it's a debt collector or a landlord.
In this latest case, debt collectors at the firm of Kucker, Kraus & Bruh argued that they did not have to give tenants Robert and Jessica Dowling notice of their rights because their landlord, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, signed the eviction notice for their Gramercy Park apartment. However, because attorneys at Kucker, Kraus & Bruh both prepared and mailed the notice, the judge found the firm had violated federal law.
The new ruling will improve conditions for tenants who are being treated unfairly, said Robert Sokolski, the Dowlings' attorney. Rather than having to miss work to go to court, he said, a tenant can prove he does not owe rent simply by mailing the collector a cancelled check.
One landlord advocate last week called Casey's decision “bogus.” “It is merely more costly for landlords to pay their attorneys for multiple notices and more confusing for tenants to receive more notices,” said Dan Margulies, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program.
Sokolski insists, however, that there is nothing confusing about the law: “If it's confusing to tenants then it's a violation and the debt collector has done something wrong.”