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rental-agreementI confess. Numbers scare me and I hate them. Like many attorneys, I’m arithmetically illiterate and painfully aware that—had I ever been any good at math—I probably wouldn’t have ended up as a lawyer in the first place. This visceral insecurity triggers a craven avoidance response that I struggle to control. The panic generated by the need to do simple addition and subtraction usually subsides when I remember that there’s a calculator somewhere on my phone. Other situations are more harrowing. Remember the word problems that used to induce nightmares when preparing for the SAT? The ones with a train that left Denver at 2:38 p.m. (Central time) at a speed of 54 mph and collided with a herd of buffalo in Utah thereby delaying its arrival in Salt Lake City by—how long? (Please solve for pi.) I don’t know! They don’t have buffalo in Utah! I thought I had left that horror behind for good by entering the legal profession. Then the New York state legislature went and enacted the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (HSTPA) this past June. The amendments that it made to the Rent Stabilization Law (RSL) now require an attorney faced with a rent overcharge claim to solve at least two sets of mathematical word problems when evaluating the claim! Thank you New York state legislature. This article is one dread-stricken lawyer’s search for a step-by-step approach to dealing with those rent overcharge math problems.

A first observation: RSL §26-516 may be newly amended, but it’s still drafted backwards and requires close reading. Paragraph (a) states that: “any owner of housing accommodations who, upon complaint of a tenant, … is found …, after a reasonable opportunity to be heard, to have collected an overcharge above the rent authorized for a housing accommodation subject to this chapter shall be liable to the tenant for a penalty equal to three times the amount of such overcharge.” It then provides “[i]f the owner establishes by a preponderance of the evidence that the overcharge was not willful, the [finder of fact] shall establish the penalty as the amount of the overcharge plus interest … .” Deciphered, these provisions require determinations as to whether a landlord made a rent overcharge, if so, what penalty/s to impose. Or, in plain English, separate findings about liability and damages.

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