Case Notes in

Attorney Fees

First published: Apr 2016
Osberger v. 18 Mercer Equity Inc.

Although incidental to the issue of legal fees, this case raises a point we have seen many times. When a city agency issues a violation, it is often (if not always) issued against the building and not the offending apartment owner. In some situations, an administrative law judge will allow an apartment owner to intervene or to take over the defense; in some instances he or she will not. It is important for a building, upon receipt of a violation, to be clear that the responsibility both for defense and to cure a violation and pay fines or penalties rests with the apartment owner. The court’s analysis of the Osbergers’ claim for attorneys’ fees under the co-op proprietary lease is noteworthy. The cooperative would not have been able to assert a claim for fees since the Osbergers were not in default, and a default was required under the lease. Our experience has been that, in situations like this, most boards would in fact demand its fees be paid by the shareholder.

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First published: Apr 2016
Osberger v. 18 Mercer Equity Inc.

Although incidental to the issue of legal fees, this case raises a point we have seen many times. When a city agency issues a violation, it is often (if not always) issued against the building and not the offending apartment owner. In some situations, an administrative law judge will allow an apartment owner to intervene or to take over the defense; in some instances he or she will not. It is important for a building, upon receipt of a violation, to be clear that the responsibility both for defense and to cure a violation and pay fines or penalties rests with the apartment owner. The court’s analysis of the Osbergers’ claim for attorneys’ fees under the co-op proprietary lease is noteworthy. The cooperative would not have been able to assert a claim for fees since the Osbergers were not in default, and a default was required under the lease. Our experience has been that, in situations like this, most boards would in fact demand its fees be paid by the shareholder.

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First published: Sep 2011
Siegler v. 875 Tenant Corp. and Himmelberger v. 40-50 Brighton First Road Apartments Corp.

There have been a number of cases that have addressed the parties’ entitlement to fees under co-op documents, including the proprietary lease and alteration agreements. Courts will interpret agreements as contracts, according to their terms. The court concluded that, as there was no default in Siegler, there was no basis upon which to award fees. Similarly, in Himmelberger, it appears as if the co-op was required to retain security to protect its residents, yet at the same time had no vehicle through which to charge the cost to the shareholder, Henderson. We believe that most proprietary leases are insufficient to cover the myriad circumstances we see time and again, where co-ops are called upon to perform services or address issues as a result of the action of a single shareholder. Unless the reimbursement or indemnification provisions of a lease are revised in accordance with current best practices, it is likely that all shareholders will be required to pay costs incurred by the co-op because of the acts of a single shareholder.

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First published: Sep 2011
Siegler v. 875 Tenant Corp. and Himmelberger v. 40-50 Brighton First Road Apartments Corp.

There have been a number of cases that have addressed the parties’ entitlement to fees under co-op documents, including the proprietary lease and alteration agreements. Courts will interpret agreements as contracts, according to their terms. The court concluded that, as there was no default in Siegler, there was no basis upon which to award fees. Similarly, in Himmelberger, it appears as if the co-op was required to retain security to protect its residents, yet at the same time had no vehicle through which to charge the cost to the shareholder, Henderson. We believe that most proprietary leases are insufficient to cover the myriad circumstances we see time and again, where co-ops are called upon to perform services or address issues as a result of the action of a single shareholder. Unless the reimbursement or indemnification provisions of a lease are revised in accordance with current best practices, it is likely that all shareholders will be required to pay costs incurred by the co-op because of the acts of a single shareholder.

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First published: Jan 2011
Weich v. 308 West 104, LLC.

Although this case concerns a rental landlord and tenant, it discusses principles which are equally applicable to cooperatives, keeping in mind that a cooperative corporation and shareholder are in a landlord/tenant relationship. While not directly applicable, the decision is also instructive with respect to condominiums. First, the court allowed the defendant/landlords to make a motion to dismiss certain elements of their tenants’ claimed damages, parsing the complaint so that the issues at trial would be limited to those which the tenants could, if successful, actually recover. While each case is different, whether to limit the type of damages a plaintiff can seek at trial is often a consideration for a defendant. The court here found that there were certain items for which damages were unavailable based upon applicable legal principles. For example, the unlawful eviction statute the tenants relied on to claim the right to treble damages will not be invoked when an apartment is rendered uninhabitable; it requires a forcible ouster. Moreover, although the tenants expended attorneys’ fees in other proceedings, the court found that they could not be recovered in this action. Further, there was no basis upon which the tenants could claim they were entitled to recover the cost of their experts. On the other hand, the court did not dismiss – at this stage – the tenants’ claims for personal property damage, the cost of movers, and the cost of living in another apartment. As to those, the tenants would be allowed to present their proof and have a jury or judge decide.

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First published: Dec 2010
Gotham Partners, LP v. High River Limited Partnership

In this case, and in the Batsidis case, the appellate court for Bronx and New York Counties prescribed the circumstances under which parties to a contract (including, we believe, proprietary leases, alteration agreements and bylaws) can obtain an award of attorneys’ fees. Batsidis specifically addressed the circumstance where there was no litigation, yet fees were expended as a result of a particular shareholder’s alteration. Given the clear language in an attorneys’ fees provision in the alteration agreement at issue in that case, attorneys’ fees were awarded. Gotham addressed what happens when there is no applicable attorneys’ fees clause but a party attempts to obtain an award of such fees relying on an indemnification provision in the contract. What we take from these cases is that if the language in an attorneys’ fees section in the agreement is clear and unequivocal, it will be interpreted according to its meaning. If, however, a party seeks attorneys’ fees based upon a contract’s indemnification provision (rather than a section addressing legal fees specifically), the language of the indemnification provision must be specific and explicit that it was intended to apply where one party to a contract prevails in a lawsuit and seeks attorneys’ fees from the other. Given the recent case law concerning attorneys’ fees and the interpretation of different contractual provisions, we suggest that boards ask their counsel to review the provisions in their governing documents and alteration agreements in order to make sure the documents are in line with the most recent rulings.

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First published: Jan 2008
Ash v. Board of Managers of The 155 Condominium

It appears as if the lower court attempted to circumvent the plaintiff’s right to free speech by finding that his actions were detrimental to the discovery process and the administration of the court’s calendar. The appellate court has reminded us, however, that a litigant will not be barred from speaking except under the most egregious circumstances. Interestingly, the issue of whether plaintiff’s communications rose to the level of defamation that may allow the board members to sue was apparently not raised. In any event, freedom of speech prevailed here.

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First published: Nov 2006
Silverman v. 875 Tenant Corp.

This was initially an action brought by a shareholder against the co-op that was unsuccessful. As a result of the shareholder’s failure, the co-op sought to have the shareholder reimburse the co-op for its legal expenses as provided in the proprietary lease. The co-op succeeded and the case should be a warning to a shareholder who sues his or her co-op that, if the shareholder does not prevail, there is a good chance that he or she may end up paying the legal fees both for the shareholder and the co-op. Such fees may be quite substantial.

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First published: Mar 2006
Miller vs. 965 Fifth Avenue Owners Inc.

The failure of the co-op in this case to promptly abate a mold condition of which it was aware and responsible to repair for several months ended up costing the co-op more than it would have if it had acted promptly. As a result, it was forced to incur not only its own legal expenses to deal with the abatement, but also those of its tenant-shareholder and the subtenant-occupant of the damaged apartment. The lesson here for co-op and condo boards and their managers is to promptly remediate mold conditions once they are disclosed. Delay only increases the cost of solving the problem and increases the legal expenses.

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First published: Mar 2004
178 E. 80th St. Owners, Inc. v. Jenkins

The result here was most unusual. In American jurisprudence, each party normally bears its own legal expenses. Occasionally, by contract, this rule can be varied so that either one party or another bears the expenses of both parties. Often, the proprietary lease so provides. In this case, the lease was not the basis. Rather, it was the combination of the federal court venue and the shareholder's contempt of court, a unique situation.

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