No one who has witnessed what goes on in housing court today needs to be reminded that virtually no tenants are represented by a lawyer, while landlords almost always are – with the predictable result that landlords almost always win, and tenants almost always lose. Such was the case for a frustrated, and grieving, client who met with Jen Peck, a staff attorney in NYLAG’s Total Life Choices Unit early in 2013.

Alvin Lee, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP

Alvin Lee, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP

The client’s younger sister had died in 2012 at the age of 60. Just months before her death, the sister had finally closed the book on a protracted dispute with her landlord involving the rent-stabilized apartment she had lived in for over 30 years. The landlord was trying to buy her out of the apartment, but she did not want to leave. Unfortunately, she became seriously ill and was unable to continue to work. With no income, she could no longer afford her rent, and the landlord filed eviction proceedings against her in housing court. The parties eventually settled, with the tenant agreeing to vacate by December 31, 2011, and the landlord agreeing to pay her $13,000. At the time the agreement was signed, the landlord’s attorney, seeing that the tenant was clearly very sick, inserted a handwritten provision stating that payment was to be made to the “the respondent, and only the respondent, and no survivors,” to ensure, based on the tenant’s obvious poor health, that the money would not be paid if she died before she moved out.

The tenant kept her end of the bargain and moved out of the apartment as agreed, after which she was placed in a nursing home and eventually became incapacitated. In January 2012 the landlord sent her a check for $13,000, but she died in March without having the opportunity to deposit the check. The landlord, who by this time had sold the apartment for $1.3 million, filed a motion in April 2013 seeking to have the funds released from escrow and returned to him, claiming that the decedent’s estate was not entitled to the payment due to the “no survivors” provision and, incredibly, stating that the tenant’s failure to deposit the check meant that she “essentially rejected the payment.”

The client turned to NYLAG and Ms. Peck, who assisted her in becoming the administrator of her sister’s estate to obtain authority for her to continue the housing court case on her the estate’s behalf, with the express purpose of using the money to pay her sister’s outstanding debts, including medical bills and funeral costs. The client appeared in court pro se in September 2013 and argued that the estate was entitled to the payment. The judge told her she needed an attorney to file an opposition to the motion, or risk defaulting. Although NYLAG did not have the resources to provide direct representation, the agency was able to find her a pro bono attorney, Alvin Lee, an associate in the Litigation Department of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, who was willing and ready to advocate on her behalf — despite the fact that the next hearing was scheduled in little more than a month.

“Alvin and I reviewed the details of the case, brainstormed ideas for arguments opposing the landlord’s motion and discussed litigation strategies,” said Ms. Peck. “He made the client feel as though she finally had the tools to stand up to the landlord and his attorneys. Her feelings of helplessness and impotence ebbed away and her confidence and optimism returned as he stood by her side in housing court and surprised the landlord’s attorney and judge with her sophisticated legal counsel.”

Mr. Lee is an experienced litigator who has represented clients across a range of commercial legal matters, but this was his first foray into housing court. What struck him immediately was how out of her depth his client was when they first met.

“She did not have much fight left in her at that point. The petitioners may have been on shaky legal ground, but a bad lawyer is better than no lawyer at all,” said Mr. Lee. “They used the tool of intimidation extremely well.”

Mr. Lee relied on the advice of Orrick senior partner Peter Coll to prepare an opposition motion. He and another Orrick associate, Shasha Zou, based their argument in part on the dictionary definitions of the words “estate” and “survivors,” one simply meaning a person’s property and the other clearly referring to living persons. They argued, therefore, that the “no survivors” provision did not relieve the landlord of his obligation to pay the estate.

“I felt very strongly that this was about righting a terrible wrong – what the petitioner in this case was trying to do was so unfair. The decedent had done everything they had asked of her,” said Mr. Lee. “They were trying to deny her the money she had earned. They wanted something for free – and that in addition to having already profited handsomely from the sale of the apartment.”

Mr. Lee is no stranger to pro bono work. He was heavily involved in pro bono work while in law school, and has been able to continue to do so during his time at Orrick. He especially enjoys the opportunity that pro bono representation provides to become emotionally invested and take ownership of his cases, which he feels “makes any project more meaningful.”

In the end, Mr. Lee’s expertise as an attorney, and his passion to see justice done, were rewarded.  On December 6, the judge succinctly and unambiguously denied the landlord’s motion, agreeing that the estate was entitled to the funds, and stating that she found it “difficult to comprehend” the argument that “a check does not constitute the transfer and delivery of funds until payment….The death of respondent does not relieve petitioner of its stipulated obligations.”

No one was more gratified by the decision than Ms. Peck: “To me this case was so egregious, so obviously meant to be decided in our client’s favor. She simply wished to do the right thing by her deceased sister. Alvin treated our client with respect and courtesy and took her case seriously.  He understood that despite the relatively small sum in question, it meant a lot to the client to win this case, financially and emotionally. I was thrilled the day we received the decision in our client’s favor and will remember this case as one of our best success stories.”