While many believe a landlord or tenant can be sued for "harassment," few fully appreciate the limited array of rights and remedies currently recognized by New York law. Generally, "harassment" is defined as the act of unduly annoying, badgering, hounding, pestering, and/or plaguing another.
It is virtually common knowledge, that federal, state and local laws prohibit "sexual" harassment (e.g., sexually offensive language, inappropriate remarks about someone's body, direct or indirect pressure for sexual activity, inappropriate touching, patting, pinching, leering or ogling) in a variety of contexts. And that our criminal laws prohibit "stalking" and an array of other inappropriate behaviors (e.g., use of the telephone, telegraph, mail or any other form of written communication in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm, or, the striking, shoving, kicking or otherwise subjecting another to physical contact because of a belief or perception regarding such person's race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation). But what if the conduct in question doesn't fit within these parameters?
While, for many, the landlord-tenant relationship is neither frictional nor adversarial, on occasion we hear reports of owners who fail or refuse to supply essential services, neglect the repair or maintenance of their buildings, charge exorbitant late-fees (and other charges) or commence what some might characterize as "frivolous" law suits in the hopes of recouping an apartment or securing an eviction. Similarly, we are barraged with nightmarish stories of tenants who unjustifiably withhold rent, intentionally inflict damage to their units and/or to the common areas of buildings, file baseless administrative complaints, unreasonably refuse access to their apartments for required maintenance and repairs, and/or who engage in conduct detrimental not only to themselves but to other occupants of the structure.
Faced with these facts or circumstances, may one bring a civil lawsuit for "harassment?" The shortest answer is, "No." While the parties are free to pursue other avenues of relief, (like a property-damage claim or a counterclaim asserting a breach of the warranty of habitability), New York courts do not recognize "harassment" as an independent basis upon which one individual may sue another. Of course, like with everything else in the law, there are some noteworthy exceptions to this general "rule."
While Real Property Law section 235-d, is entitled "Harassment," and is intended to provide redress (monetary damages and injunctive relief) for an owner's misconduct, its protections are expressly limited in scope to buildings formerly occupied for manufacturing or warehouse purposes. For those relative few who reside in such structures, the statute provides, in pertinent part, as follows:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, within a city having a population of one million or more, it shall be unlawful and shall constitute harassment for any landlord of a building which at any time was occupied for manufacturing or warehouse purposes, or other person acting on his behalf, to engage in any course of conduct, including, but not limited to intentional interruption or discontinuance or willful failure to restore services customarily provided or required by written lease or other rental agreement, which interferes with or disturbs the comfort, repose, peace or quiet of a tenant in the tenant's use or occupancy of rental space if such conduct is intended to cause the tenant (i) to vacate a building or part thereof; or (ii) to surrender or waive any rights of such tenant under the tenant's written lease or other rental agreement.Similarly, while section 2525.5 of the Rent Stabilization Code prohibits conduct which disrupts tenants' "privacy, comfort, peace, repose or quiet enjoyment" of their apartments," this regulatory protection is only available to rent-stabilized tenants. This section provides:
It shall be unlawful for any owner or any person acting on his or her behalf, directly or indirectly, to engage in any course of conduct (including but not limited to interruption or discontinuance of required services, or unwarranted or baseless court proceedings) which interferes with or disturbs, or is intended to interfere with or disturb, the privacy, comfort, peace, repose or quiet enjoyment of the tenant in his or her use or occupancy of the housing accommodation, or is intended to cause the tenant to vacate such housing accommodation or waive any right afforded under this code.Even with this regulatory protection in place, when faced with proscribed conduct, a rent-stabilized tenant may not be able to proceed immediately to a civil lawsuit. As was cogently observed by the Appellate Division, First Department, in Edelstein v. Farber:
To the extent defendant seeks to recover based on allegations of harassment, New York does not recognize a common-law cause of action for harassment...The proper remedy for a violation of the prohibition against harassment in Rent Stabilization Code (9 NYCRR) section 2525.5 is a complaint to the Division of Housing and Community Renewal....So, unless you are among the intended beneficiaries of these laws, and, the objectionable conduct falls within one (or more) of the delineated categories, call it what you will, it likely ain't "harassment."
For a copy of the Appellate Division's decision in Edelstein v. Farber, please click on the following link: