Real Estate, S.D.N.Y.

Lawyers Complaining About Being Held To ‘Basic Standards of Professionalism’

Most folks think lawyers exist to screw over “widows and orphans.” According to a federal judge, one law firm made that reputation a reality and now owes an elderly man $130,000.

Did every other lawyer decry the injustice and declare that the firm was acting beyond the bounds of common dignity? If you guessed in the negative, congratulations.

Fellow lawyers, this is why we can’t have nice things…

The New York firm of Kucker & Bruh (not, as far as we can tell, pronounced Cocker and Bro, even if that might describe their behavior) dutifully tried to evict an 82-year-old man on behalf of its client, Mall Properties Inc. Unfortunately for Kucker & Bruh, Mall Properties Inc. had faulty records that failed to account for the rent exemption due the tenant.

Kucker & Bruh halted the eviction proceedings once it recognized the error, but not before running an 82-year-old man unsophisticated in the law through a legal wringer for awhile. No harm, no foul, right?

Judge Lorna G. Schofield of the S.D.N.Y. disagreed and held the law firm itself liable for the tenant’s ordeal. In her decision, Judge Schofield found that Kucher & Bruh “blindly” relied on the faulty documents from the landlord and generally decided to hold the law firm to a higher standard in scrutinizing the “law and facts” of a situation before they start dragging people out of apartments by their hair. She ordered a trial to determine the extent of the damages. The firm promptly settled.

With a case like this, you’d expect even lawyers secretly on Kucher & Bruh’s side to keep their mouths shut for P.R. purposes. Nope:

“Are we supposed to be the attorneys for the landlord and the accountants?” asked David Skaller, a partner at Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, which represents many landlords but wasn’t involved in the case. “It has a potential chilling effect.”

****

Adam Leitman Bailey, who represents many landlords and isn’t connected with the Lee case, said it was a “very dangerous decision for lawyers” by a federal judge “who could not possibly understand the halls of housing court and the landlord-tenant industry.”

He noted that the same printouts of rent records that the judge found inadequate were routinely accepted as evidence in housing court. “We would be unable to practice law in any field, unless we rely on information from our clients,” he said.

Doesn’t this more accurately suggest that the “halls of housing court” have been turning a blind eye to shady legal practices for far too long? In every other court in the country a lawyer can turn up liable for at least hefty sanctions for prosecuting claims based on recklessly trusting false information. Lawyers don’t get excused from diligent inquiry just because judges have hitherto let the bar get away with it.

We’re only days removed from another NYC lawyer pleading guilty because he thought he could get away with forging documents to convert buildings into condos and toss the tenants. This is an area of law in New York where a little extra scrutiny wouldn’t be out of place.

In the end, some firms will have to work a little later to prove they adequately covered their bases, and if they don’t, they may have to pay some money. It sucks to lose money, but what sucks much worse is being an elderly retiree and getting told you have to live on the street.

Maybe a little perspective is in order for these lawyers.

Eviction-Case Settlement Worries Landlord Lawyers [Wall Street Journal Law Blog]
Law firm held liable for trying to evict elderly tenant based on incorrect client records [ABA Journal]
Brooklyn attorney pleads guilty to forging NYS condo documents [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]

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