New York Attorney General Letitia James today announced that she has reached an agreement with Kucker, Marino, Winiarsky & Bittens LLP (Kucker) for unlawfully providing improper and damaging legal advice to New York tenants. An investigation by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that Kucker sent a letter to 263 unrepresented tenants in the Bronx giving them unwarranted legal advice about their rights to rent stabilization. Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), a tenant organizing project, was already working with the tenants to fight for safe, affordable housing. Kucker’s letter gave tenants a false sense of security regarding rent stabilization, and CASA’s organizing efforts were stalled as a result. As part of the agreement, Kucker will pay $50,000 to CASA for the money and resources it spent to combat Kucker’s improper letter. Kucker will also adopt official trainings and procedures to ensure complete and ongoing compliance with their ethical duties.
Kucker sent the letter to six buildings in the Bronx: 1187 Anderson Avenue, 1195 Anderson Avenue, 1997 Anderson Avenue, 1220 Shakespeare Avenue, 1210 Woodycrest Avenue, and 1230 Woodycrest Avenue.
“As New York City continues to face a housing crisis, we must do everything we can to ensure tenants are informed of their rights and are protected against unscrupulous landlords and their lawyers,” said Attorney General James. “Today, we are holding Kucker accountable for jeopardizing New Yorker’s housing stability and failing to comply with the law. I will continue to use the full force of my office to stand up for tenants who are organizing their communities to ensure that safe, decent, and affordable housing is a reality for all New Yorkers.”
Today, about one million apartments in New York City are covered by rent stabilization. Rent stabilization protects tenants from drastic changes in rent and provides tenants with the right to renew their leases, which has been particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tenants have a right under New York law to organize for better conditions and OAG has provided guidance to law enforcement agencies about how to protect this right. New York Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers also dictate that lawyers cannot provide legal advice to individuals who do not have their own legal representation.
In July 2021, OAG began an investigation into Kucker after Bronx Legal Services flagged an application submitted to New York City on behalf of the firm’s client requesting to deny rent stabilization status to 263 apartments. The letter failed to address potential rent stabilization protections for the tenants. During OAG’s investigation, Kucker admitted to improperly ghostwriting letters sent by the landlord to all 263 tenants containing legal advice about the submission to the state. At the same time, CASA was working with tenants of the buildings to organize an association to advocate for repairs and to fight the landlord’s submission to the state. The letter caused a major disruption in their organizing efforts, leading to further miscommunication and misinformation among tenants, and CASA had to divert resources in order to address the impact.
Under the agreement negotiated by OAG, Kucker must establish a range of practices and procedures that will ensure compliance with the law going forward. Within 60 days of signing the agreement, all Kucker attorneys and paralegals must attend a training that will cover their obligations under the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, including communications with unrepresented individuals and protocol for submitting applications to administrative bodies. Additionally, Kucker must pay $50,000 to CASA as restitution for the resources spent and frustration of mission CASA suffered due to the letter. Failure to comply with the law going forward will result in a $5,000 penalty for every violation.
This action marks the second time in the last two years that OAG has taken against Kucker. In June 2020, an investigation found that Kucker sent dozens of deceptive eviction notices to tenants during the statewide COVID-19 eviction ban. Kucker agreed to stop engaging in any “deceptive or fraudulent rent or debt notices” going forward.
“I applaud New York Attorney General Letitia James and her staff for reaching an agreement with Kucker, Marino, Winiarsky & Bittnes LLP, who were found to have provided improper legal advice to 263 Bronx tenants without legal representation who were working with CASA to improve safety conditions and the affordability of their apartments,” said Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson. “My hope is that this agreement stands as an example demonstrating the lengths to which the city and state are prepared to undergo to ensure that tenants, especially during this health crisis, are safe, free from intimidation, and are allowed to stay in their apartments. I want to thank Attorney General Letitia James and CASA for their work in fighting for our residents.”
The OAG is pursuing similar investigations to uphold tenant protections and to hold landlords and their lawyers accountable for their unlawful actions. This week, Attorney General James shut down a landlord for exposing children to lead paint hazards in Syracuse. In April 2022, Attorney General James sued Brooklyn-based eviction lawyers for engaging in deceptive rent collection practices and initiating frivolous lawsuits against New York tenants.
This matter was handled by Housing Protection Unit Chief Brent Meltzer. The Housing Protection Unit is a part of the Division for Social Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux. The Division for Social Justice is overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.