What Can You Do When An Elderly Person Has An Abusive Roommate?

July 24, 2014

Many of us have had a bad roommate at some point in our lives, so we know how miserable it can be to live with such a person.  But imagine how much worse it would be if you were a frail senior with no protective family or friends, and no money to hire a lawyer.  A recent clinical encounter and court case brought all of this to mind.

Last week I spoke with an elderly man at one of the Elderly Project's monthly legal clinics who had come to see me because of a problem with his roommate.  Like many seniors in the city, his income only barely covers his rent-stabilized rent, so he had decided to rent a room to a young man he had met in the neighborhood.  Because the senior was not making a profit on the rent, this was perfectly legal.  But the roommate soon allowed his girlfriend to move in and started to take over the apartment, playing music late into the night and eating the senior’s food.

On the same day that I spoke with this tenant, I learned of a recent Manhattan Housing Court decision in which the judge not only ruled against and evicted an elderly tenant's roommate, but also discussed at some length the issue of elder abuse.  You can read the decision here: Huggins v. Randolph.  I was encouraged to see that a housing court judge had taken such an interest in an apparent elder abuse case, but on the other hand I know that these cases are not always so cut and dried and easy for a judge to dispense with.

First there is the question of the roommate's relationship to the tenant who has brought the eviction lawsuit.  Ordinarily, if the two are closely related, a housing court judge will dismiss the case on the ground that a "landlord-tenant relationship" does not exist between them, and the tenant will have to start what is known as an "ejectment action" in State Supreme Court.  In this recent case, the parties were indeed related, and it is unclear why the judge did not mention the potential legal significance of that relationship.  Had the roommate retained a lawyer, the case might have gone in a different direction.

Second, speaking of lawyers, it can be difficult for an elderly tenant to secure free legal representation to bring a lawsuit like this (known as a "licensee holdover”) against a roommate.  This is because legal services offices do not like to be in the position of trying to persuade a judge to evict someone; after all, such offices were created in part to represent people facing eviction.  Nonetheless, I referred the elderly man whom I met at the clinic to a couple of the legal services offices in Manhattan that specialize in representing the elderly, in the hope that one of them would agree to represent him.  Having handled some of these cases as a lawyer at The Legal Aid Society’s Brooklyn Office for the Aging, I know that occasionally an eviction notice from a lawyer is enough to get a roommate to leave.  But if the roommate ignores it, and a lawsuit is required, an eviction notice -- known as a "notice of termination" – will not hold up in court unless it is properly written, and then delivered to the roommate in a particular way, none of which this elderly tenant would ever be able to manage on his own.  For this man's sake, I hope that one of the legal services offices will consider representing him.

So the bottom line is that, although these cases can be difficult, both in terms of their details and their appeal to a legal services office, they can be very important to a vulnerable senior, and if handled properly by a lawyer, they can be won.