The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in state and local governments across the country implementing executive orders and other laws that place a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions. Recently, New York City has taken further steps, passing a series of laws that prohibit landlords from harassing tenants and small business owners impacted by COVID-19. In response, certain real estate industry participants challenged to the laws as unconstitutionally restricting their First Amendment and contract rights.
However, the Court in Melendez v. City of New York, No. 20-CV-5301 (RA), 2020 WL 7705633 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 25, 2020) rejected those constitutional challenges and upheld new provisions of the NYC administrative code that expand the definition of unlawful harassment to include threats against individuals or businesses based on their status as a COVID-19 impacted persons, their status as essential employees, or their receipt of a rental concession or forbearance. These ordinances were enacted to supplement the existing statewide moratorium on commercial and residential evictions for non-payment of rent due to COVID-19, which may not provide sufficient protection. For example, some landlords may attempt to employ other types of lease violations as a pretext to declare defaults against both residential and commercial tenants impacted by COVID-19. Another new law makes personal guaranties in commercial leases unenforceable against COVID-19 impacted persons. These provisions are retroactive to March 2020 and currently extend until at least the end of March 2021 or after the statewide moratorium on evictions expires. Violations are punishable by civil penalties of $2,000 to $10,000. There is also a private right of action under which affected tenants may recover attorney's fees and punitive damages.
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