RICO Lawsuit Against Apthorp Landlords Heard

A federal judge has told the tenant of a landmark Upper West Side apartment building to come back with a stronger case if he wants to use RICO, the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, to sue his landlord.

Federal District Court Judge Richard Owen tentatively dismissed Tony Lazzarino’s lawsuit against the owners of the Apthorp on West 79th Street and Broadway for lack of detail, but allowed him to refile it within 45 days. Lazzarino said he considered the judge’s action to be positive because it gave him another chance to add the necessary details to his complaint.

The Apthorp is managed and partially owned by the same entity as the Elva McZeal Apartments in East New York, who turned that building over to its tenants in an out-of-court settlement after they used RICO to sue it (Tenant/Inquilino, Dec. 1996).

Lazzarino, who brought the suit in October, has named as defendants the managing agent, Kenton Associates; the various owner entities at the Apthorp; the landlord’s law firm, Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman; the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development; and the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal. He is suing HPD and DHCR for the same reason that the McZeal tenants named the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a defendant in their lawsuit: the agencies’ intentional or negligent failure to enforce the laws protecting the tenants under their jurisdiction.

Lazzarino charges that HPD and DHCR knew of and allowed serious conditions affecting life, health, and safety to exist at the Apthorp and turned a blind eye to the landlord’s false certifications that the conditions had been cleared. He is also accusing DHCR of allowing the landlords to create illusory tenancies to decontrol apartments.

At a Dec. 20 interim hearing before Judge Owen, Lazzarino alone with his single attorney faced off with a dozen attorneys representing the various defendants-including the city Corporation Counsel and the state Attorney General-who argued that the RICO charges against them should be dismissed. At one point, Owen corrected Belkin Burden Wenig attorney Magda Cruz when she made the point that lawyers are duty-bound to represent their clients zealously. The judge agreed with her and added that some lawyers commit criminal acts on their client’s behalf.

One of the reasons for the hearing was the accusation by the landlord’s law firm that one of the tenants at the Apthorp besides Lazzarino had posted a notice on TenantNet, the World Wide Web site to which Tenant/Inquilino is also posted monthly, that asked tenants who had experience with the firm filing false documents in court to come forward in support of the RICO lawsuit.

Met Council has agreed to file an amicus brief supporting the lawsuit when the issue is submitted to the court.