Landlords routinely collect a security deposit from tenants at the commencement of a lease term with the deposit generally to be used to ensure the tenant’s compliance with its lease obligations.These obligations typically include the payment of rent or additional rent and payment for any damage to the leased premises caused by the tenant. While Courts will look to the lease to determine the nature of a deposit (i.e. whether the deposit is security, liquidated damages or a penalty) and the right to the deposit, the parties to the lease sometime overlook the General Obligations Law provisions relating to security deposits1. The failure to comply with the General Obligations Law can prove costly. Indeed, as demonstrated by the following case, the failure to comply with GOL §7-103 can have harsh results.
In relevant part, GOL §7-103 (1) provides:
Whenever money shall be deposited or advanced on a contract or license
agreement for the use or rental of real property as security for performance
of the contract or agreement or to be applied to payments upon such contract or
agreement when due, such money . . . shall be held in trust by the person with
whom such deposit or advance shall be made and shall not be mingled
with the personal moneys or become an asset of the person receiving the
same . . . (Emphasis supplied)
GOL §7-103 (2) provides, in relevant part:
Whenever the person receiving money so deposited or advanced shall
deposit such money in a banking organization, such person shall thereupon
notify in writing each of the persons making such security deposit or advance,
giving the name and address of the banking organization in which the deposit
of security money is made, and the amount of such deposit.
Pritzker v. Park South Lofts LLC2 was an action brought by a residential tenant against his landlord for the return of his security deposit. The landlord refused to return tenant’s $84,000.00 security deposit because the tenant allegedly caused $36,404.06 in damage to the demised premises. Landlord also refused to return the entire deposit because it was incurring legal fees in connection with the repairs and with the action commenced by the tenant. The tenant alleged claims against the landlord for conversion, breach of the lease, violation of GOL §7-103 and attorneys fees. Landlord asserted counterclaims alleging damage to the apartment and attorneys fees.
In discussing the General Obligations Law, the Court specifically held that “where a landlord has deposited a security deposit in a bank and fails to comply with the notice provision of GOL §7-103(2), a court may draw the rebuttable inference that the landlord has mingled that security deposit with the landlord’s own money, in violation of GOL §7-103(1). [citations omitted] Such commingling constitutes a conversion, as well as a breach of fiduciary duty [citation omitted] and regardless of any non-compliance by the tenant with the terms of the lease, it entitles the tenant to an immediate return of the deposit. [citations omitted]. In the event of such commingling, the landlord may not use any portion of the deposit even for otherwise legitimate purposes. [citations omitted].”
In this case, it was not disputed that the landlord deposited the tenant’s security deposit in an “agency account” of landlord’s managing agent and neither landlord nor its managing agent notified tenant of that deposit as required by GOL §7-103(2). Landlord produced certain banking records from the agent for a period surrounding the deposit of the tenant’s security deposit which records showed seven deposits into the account in addition to the deposit of tenant’s security. Landlord did not identify the sources of those other deposits and no proof was submitted that anyone other than the landlord may have owned any portion of the money in that particular account.
The Court held that “the mere fact that [tenant’s] security deposit was deposited in an agency account does not show that the deposit was not commingled with any of [landlord’s] own money.” A member of the landlord (an LLC) provided an affidavit that its agency account “is wholly segregated from [landlord’s] monies.” Notwithstanding such affidavit, the Court held “in the absence of any explanation of the sources of the many credits to [the agency] account, other than that of plaintiff’s security deposit, in the absence of a copy of such contract as [landlord] and [its agent] may have entered into, and in the absence of unambiguous evidence that the [agency] account does not include money belonging to [landlord]” the affidavit was not sufficient “to rebut the presumption that the security deposit was mingled with the personal monies [of the landlord] within the meaning of GOL §7-103.” Also troubling to the Court was the fact that, after the tenant vacated the apartment, the landlord determined that a portion of the security deposit would be used to repair damage allegedly caused by tenant. But, rather than return the excess security deposit, the landlord retained the entire security deposit to guarantee attorneys fees to which it believed it would be entitled in connection with the tenant’s action. The Court held that these facts demonstrated that the landlord exerted dominance over the security deposit and did not view it as segregated from its own money and therefore granted tenant summary judgment on its claims for conversion and violation of the General Obligations Law.
While the Court did find the tenant partially liable to landlord on landlord’s counterclaims for damage to property, the Court nevertheless granted tenant a judgment for the full amount of the security deposit [$84,000.00] with interest from the end of the lease term.
While this result may be harsh, it could have been avoided had landlord or its agent provided tenant with notice in compliance with GOL §7-103(2) and produced sufficient proof in accordance with GOL §7-103 that the security deposit was not commingled with landlord’s personal funds.
The Appellate Term also recently considered a matter in which the tenant sued to recover his security deposit and the landlord sought to recover sums for certain unpaid charges. In awarding the tenant the return of his security deposit and reducing the amount awarded to the landlord, the Court focused on the specific terms of the lease. In Schlesinger v. Edwards3 after a non-jury trial, the Court awarded the tenant, who had vacated the premises at the end of the lease term, a judgment in the sum of $4,300.00 representing the return of tenant’s full security deposit and awarded the landlord the sum of $553.54 on his counterclaim to recover sums for unpaid electric bills, water bills, carpet cleaning, cleaning and repair of bath and kitchen tile and for rekeying locks to the premises. On appeal, the landlord argued that a rider to the lease required the tenant to provide 60 days notice to landlord if tenant did not intend to renew the lease and that if tenant failed to do so landlord was entitled to retain the entirety of the security deposit.
While the specific lease language is not reported in the case, the Court found that the landlord’s interpretation of the lease clause did “not appear to reflect the parties’ intention, as the lease was for a defined one-year term.” The Court interpreted the lease clause at issue to require the tenant, upon the expiration of the lease term, to provide 60 days notice to the landlord if tenant intended to remain in the premises after the expiration of the lease term and that if the tenant did not give such notice but nevertheless remained in the premises, his security deposit would be forfeited. Finding the lease clause ambiguous, the Court applied the doctrine of contra proferentem, and construed the clause against the landlord and granted the return of the security deposit because the tenant had timely vacated the premises upon the expiration of the one year term. The Court also reduced the monetary award to the landlord finding that the lease specifically provided that if the premises was not cleaned at the expiration of the term, the sum of $100.00 would be deducted from the security deposit but that landlord could collect more than $100.00 if the cleaning costs exceeded $100.00 and landlord provided itemized receipts for such cleaning. The landlord, despite claiming that the cleaning costs for the carpet and bathroom/kitchen tile exceeded $100.00, did not provide itemized receipts for such and thus reduced the landlord’s award for such cleaning costs to $100.00 reducing the entire award to $373.54.
The very simple lesson learned from these cases is that both landlords and tenants should specifically comply with the terms of their lease, which should be carefully drafted to properly memorialize their agreement, and should scrupulously comply with applicable governing statutes.