What if our landlord tricked us into paying the neighbor's utilities?

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Question:

My roommate and I signed a one-year lease for an apartment in a small town in upstate New York. Utilities were not part of the rent. It was my understanding that the utility account would go in our names since we were to be responsible for it. When it came time to sign the lease, the landlord explained that she would keep the utilities in her name and pay 25% of the bill since there were two exterior lights included in the bill for our apartment. We agreed to this arrangement until we learned that there was actually another apartment included in our utilities, not just two exterior lights. The landlord initially denied this until we confirmed it with the utility company. We felt the lease was null and void and moved out 2.5 months after moving in.

There is an outstanding balance on the utility account and the landlord is threatening to garnish our wages. Was the lease null and void? What portion of the utility bill are we responsible for? Can landlords garnish wages without going to small claims court?

Answer:

In New York, shared meters -- in which a gas, electric, or steam meter services the tenant's rental unit as well as other areas outside the tenant's unit -- are unlawful. This according to the chapter and verse of the law in the Large Apple: Public Service Law ยง 52(2)(a).

New York state law requires landlords to eliminate shared meters by either submetering so that the tenant's meter only measures service used within the tenant's unit, or by transferring the shared meter to the landlord's account.

It sounds as though the violation here was that the charges were not properly apportioned among you, the owner and the other tenant, as required under the Public Service Law.

Unfortunately for you, however, there's no provision in the law that permits you to cancel the lease or rental agreement upon discovering the improper metering. While the law permits you to sue the landlord for utility overpayments, that option would be expensive indeed.

The landlord may not garnish your wages without first suing you and obtaining a signed and entered civil court money judgment. In the event that the landlord decides to haul you into court for outstanding utility charges, you could raise the landlord's violation of the shared meter law as a counterclaim for utility overcharges.

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