Landlord Wins Jury Trial Over Succession Claim and Then Judge Tosses Verdict; Appellate Term Comes to the Rescue and Affirms Jury Verdict and Eviction
Tenant Succession Claim
In 2010, Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C.’s Landlord & Tenant Department defended a succession case tried before a jury. It was a hard fought victory because the claimed successor, the nephew of a deceased rent controlled tenant, had lived with his aunt in a rent-controlled apartment for over thirty years. And while the “emotional” component was present between the two, there was an absence of the “financial commitment and interdependence” that the rent-controlled-succession regulation requires.
The Jury Decides in Favor of Landlord; Judge Overturns the Verdict
The jury found for the landlord, an unusual occurrence in and of itself in the city of New York. The claimed successor then moved before the Civil Court judge to vacate the judgment and direct judgment in his favor dismissing the petition.
While the motion was strenuously opposed, the judge, who was extremely sympathetic to the claimed successor, granted the motion. The court found that the lack of a financial commitment was not dispositive and that he had erred in giving the jury questions that separated the emotional component from the financial component. Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. appealed to the Appellate Term on behalf of the owner.
Appellate Term Comes to the Rescue
The Appellate Term, in a lengthy opinion which took over a year to render, reversed the Civil Court. It is a significant victory for the owner in particular, and for landlords in general.
The Appellate Term focused on the judge’s charge to the jury, which properly reflected the terms of the succession regulation, and the fact the claimed successor did not object to it. Therefore, that charge was the standard by which the case had to be judged and since the jury did just that, there was nothing improper with its verdict. Moreover, the evidence at trial certainly supported the finding that the financial component had not been satisfied. In ruling in this manner, the Appellate Term distinguished the case from others that have found either that (i) the financial component is not as important as the emotional component and (ii) finances need not be given serious consideration when the former tenant and claimed successor are both of limited means.
The Appellate Term also rejected the proposed successor’s claim that the questions presented to the jury (which separately asked (i) whether there was emotional commitment and interdependence and (ii) whether there was a financial commitment and interdependence) were improper. While the lower court stated there should have been a “unitary” question presented to the jury, the Appellate Term found that this would merely exhalt form over substance, especially since the jury did not express that it was confused in any manner.
While it is clear that the Appellate Term felt that the civil court overstepped its bounds in invading the jury’s province, it also sent a reminder to the Civil Court judges that they should decide cases pursuant to the law, rather than pursuant to their own notions of social justice. The court’s concluding paragraph warrants quotation:
Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. recognizes that respondent’s circumstances are sympathetic, given his long-term, shared occupancy of his aunt’s apartment. But the governing succession regulation and interpretative case law do not allow Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. to wink at the evidentiary gaps in respondent’s succession defense, particularly given the procedural posture of this appeal involving review of the propriety of a jury verdict. Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C.’s resolution of this case may not be reached through an emotional approach to the facts, but instead must rest upon valid legal analysis rooted in the record.
Adam Leitman Bailey and Christopher Halligan represented the landlord. Christopher Halligan conducted the trial while Adam Leitman Bailey drafted the jury instructions and provided overall strategy. Jeffrey R. Metz of the firm’s Appeals Division represented the owner on appeal.