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Courtwatching: Deposits no longer required for rent abatement hearings in Troy

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Courtwatching: Deposits no longer required for rent abatement hearings in Troy

Courtwatching is a new weekly series in which, as the name implies, we write about happenings in Capital Region courts of law. Reach out (luke@thealt.com) with tips or topic suggestions.

On Thursday mornings, Troy city court handles landlord-tenant cases—more than 4,000 last year, according to the clerk’s office. On the day of our recent visit, Feb. 22, Judge Matthew Turner, now in his fourth term, ran through about two dozen of them, which took about two hours.

In two separate nonpayment cases that day, tenants requested hearings regarding potential rent abatements. At these kinds of hearings, tenants may present documents and elicit testimony to prove they are entitled to a reduction in rent owed due to habitability issues like vermin, mold, or lack of heat. Tenants can subpoena witnesses, including code enforcement officers, to help build their case.

This may seem, for pro se tenants, a somewhat daunting task with the prospect of an uncertain amount of relief. Judge Turner said Thursday it is “very rare that I abate rent completely.”

In both cases, as Judge Turner arranged to schedule the requested abatement hearings a week or two in the future, the plaintiff—that is, the landlord or their attorney—asked whether the alleged back rent could be placed in escrow pending the court’s decision.

No, Judge Turner said. “That’s what we used to do,” he told one plaintiff. “Talk to Judge Young about that.”

This appeared to be a reference to a March 2017 decision by Rensselaer County Court Judge Debra Young, a reversal of a judgment by Judge Turner in favor of a South Troy landlord. (The clerk’s office did not respond to an email seeking to confirm this.)

According to Young’s decision, a copy of which was provided to The Alt by the United Tenants of Albany, Judge Turner had required a tenant, who had withheld two months’ rent (totaling $1,850) apparently in protest of the apartment’s unremedied problems (“an infestation of mice,” a partly broken refrigerator, and broken lights), to deposit the full amount with the court “as a prerequisite” for the abatement hearing.

The tenant brought only half the amount to court and claimed a local charity would send the other half to the landlord directly, Young’s decision says. Judge Turner “refused to accept the partial rent deposit” and issued a warrant of eviction.

State law “does not require a deposit of funds into an account as a condition precedent to the Court holding an abatement hearing,” according to Young’s decision. Nevertheless, this requirement remains “somewhat widespread” in local courts, including in Schenectady city court, Robert Romaker, a managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, which assisted the tenant involved in the appellate case, told The Alt.

“We’re obviously thrilled” to learn that Troy city court has dropped the requirement, Romaker said. “Courts shouldn’t be acting as guarantors for landlords.”

Laura Felts, an advocate with United Tenants of Albany, told The Alt that she often mentions Judge Young’s decision when advising tenants on how to prepare for abatement hearings.

She was also pleased to learn that Judge Turner has dropped the dubious prerequisite.

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