Gateway Plaza tenants united against landlord, divided among themselves

GatewayPlaza-SouthEndAveBY SAM SPOKONY  | While its goal is to win a whopping $100 million in damages based on longstanding allegations of callous neglect and barely habitable apartments, a class action lawsuit against the landlord and management of Gateway Plaza has also revealed deep rifts among both the complex’s tenants and their lawyers.

Numerous publications, including Downtown Express, reported on the suit shortly after it was filed on April 1, when it was being handled and promoted solely by a single law firm, Sanford Heisler. At that point, the only plaintiff was Maureen Koetz, a longtime Gateway tenant, and one of the key attorneys on the case was Sanford’s Jenifer Rajkumar, a Lower Manhattan Democratic District leader who is also a Gateway tenant.

“This is about giving the tenants a voice,” Rajkumar told Downtown Express April 2. “Now is the time for the tenants to come together and make a bold effort to take care of this problem once and for all.”

The lawsuit named among its defendants both the LeFrak Organization — which manages the six-building, 1,700-unit complex on a ground lease from the Battery Park City Authority — and the B.P.C.A. itself. The suit sought recovery of rent and electricity overpayments, as well as an injunction requiring LeFrak to finally rectify Gateway’s “defective” conditions, which allegedly include a lack of desperately needed repairs or upgrades to the complex’s windows and heating units.

LeFrak, in a statement, vowed to defend the suit vigorously, calling it “baseless and without merit.” The B.P.C.A. declined to comment.

And beside beginning a legal battle with those two organizations, the April 1 lawsuit surprised Lower Manhattan elected officials — State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Sen. Daniel Squadron and City Councilmember Margaret Chin — because it came in the middle of the electeds’ ongoing negotiations with LeFrak and the B.P.C.A., which sought to rectify the same conditions outlined in the suit.

It was no secret that both Koetz and Rajkumar have clashed with two of those elected officials.

Rajkumar  attempted to oust Chin in the councilmember’s bid for reelection last year, although Chin beat her by 17 points in a hard-fought primary battle. Rajkumar said last week she has no “current” plans to run again.

Koetz, a Republican, and a former U.S. Air Force assistant secretary, told the media in February that she plans to run for Silver’s office, citing his alleged mismanagement of the Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal.

Neither Silver and Chin addressed the suit in statements released on April 2, and Squadron diplomatically called it a “separate effort” from what he and his colleagues are currently undertaking.

In addition, the Gateway Plaza Tenants Association — another key party to the electeds’ aforementioned negotiations with LeFrak and the B.P.C.A. — immediately distanced itself from the lawsuit (and any Gateway tenants who might join it) by voting to remain neutral throughout the process.

“We have chosen the path of negotiation,” said Glenn Plaskin, the G.P.T.A. president, on April 2. He later went on to tell Downtown Express that he believed it was “unacceptable” for Gateway tenants to be suing the B.P.C.A., because the state entity has been “Gateway’s greatest ally for decades, supporting our efforts to maintain rent stabilization and improve living conditions.”

So at its outset, aside from putting LeFrak and the B.P.C.A. on the legal hot seat, the April 1 suit seemingly served to create substantial friction between several parties that, ostensibly, are seeking the same ends — namely, forcing Gateway’s management to finally stop its alleged neglect of tenants and their needs.

And then, two days after the suit was filed, new allegations came — but this time they were not against LeFrak or the B.P.C.A, but instead against Rajkumar and her firm.

Two other law firms, Newman Ferrara and Morgan & Morgan, filed a motion to disqualify Sanford Heisler as the lead counsel on the Gateway suit, forcefully claiming that Rajkumar acted in an “unprofessional and devious manner” by receiving a draft of the suit from a Morgan & Morgan attorney and then plagiarizing it in order to help write her own firm’s litigation.

In that April 3 motion filed in State Supreme Court, the two other firms alleged that they did the initial work on the case, and sent Rajkumar the draft because she, being a Gateway tenant, had initially agreed to act a plaintiff in the suit, rather than as an attorney.

On April 8, Rajkumar did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations. David Sanford, chairperson of Sanford Heisler, further shielded Rajkumar from being interviewed that day, saying that his firm was in the process of negotiating a deal that would allow all three firms to become co-counsel on the suit.

And, in fact, such a deal was reached the following day, immediately after which all three firms jointly released an announcement declaring that they had “teamed up” in order to become co-counsel on the original suit that had been filed on April 1.

“There is strength in numbers,” the firms jointly stated in the April 9 release. “By working together, we will achieve the best results for the [plaintiffs] who have been suffering for years in their units, particularly in the winter months without adequate heat and exorbitant utility costs in both summer and winter. This winter, of course, has taken a particularly brutal toll. With this powerhouse legal team, we will make sure that history does not repeat itself.”

As part of the deal, Morgan & Morgan and Newman Ferrara also withdrew their allegations of plagiarism against Rajkumar and Sanford Heisler. None of the three firms commented on how the deal would affect the payout of any money won in the suit, if a settlement or judgment for the plaintiffs is eventually achieved.

And after that deal was announced, Rajkumar released her own statement.

“I am pleased and gratified to see that the two law firms have admitted quickly that their accusations of improper conduct were completely baseless and now have agreed to retract them in their entirety,” the district leader said. “Those statements should never have been made in the first place, and this is the appropriate step to take.”

Though they did withdraw their allegations and their April 3 motion, notably, the two law firms did not say those accusations were “baseless.”

When that was mentioned to Rajkumar, she remained unfazed, telling Downtown Express in a phone interview that “I categorically deny all those allegations.”

However, Rajkumar declined to comment on any of the specific details raised in those allegations — such as whether or not she received the Morgan & Morgan draft while telling that firm she would act as a plaintiff — because of the fact that the April 3 motion had been dropped.

“I now look forward to vigorously and effectively representing the interests of the Gateway Plaza tenants, as I always have done,” said Rajkumar, who will remain active as an attorney alongside the other two firms she accused of making “reckless accusations.”

So it only took eight days for major moves to take place surrounding the $100 million class action lawsuit — although none of them, of course, took place in a courtroom.

It now remains to be seen how that previous fight between law firms, alongside the ongoing rift between the Gateway Plaza Tenants Association and anyone involved in the suit, will affect what originally might have seemed to be a very straightforward case against an allegedly negligent landlord.

The other two firms did not comment beyond the joint statement April 9.

“We stand united, with one goal only — to help the tenants of Gateway Plaza,” said the three law firms. “Together, we are confident we will prevail.”