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.”

 

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23 Responses to Gateway Plaza tenants united against landlord, divided among themselves

  1. This lawsuit is just the pressure we need to get the politicians moving. Gateway has been freezing for years. I am glad we will have these powerhouse law firms taking up our cause together, as well as our hometown district leader Jenifer Rajkumar on the case, who is also a Gateway tenant. I agree that Rajkumar was given unfair treatment by the Downtown Express, which blasted her with questionable allegations from outsiders in a sensational headline yesterday and now buries exonerating facts about her in this article.

  2. No one owes Rajkumar an apology. This entire debacle can be attributed to her and, if Sanford Heisler is smart, it would do well to rid itself of Rajkumar, who has proven, once again, in her statements regarding this case, that she is bold-faced in misleading the public.

    Yes, the firms decided to team up for the greater good – – their clients. But, no, the firms did not deny Rajkumar’s acts of plagiarism in the joint press release. Instead, standing solo, Rajkumar appears to have bucked her own firm to claim that the allegations are false and to mislead the public that the firms “admitted quickly that their accusations of improper conduct were completely baseless.” Last I checked, the only thing completely baseless as relating to Rajkumar were her claims about her non-profit W-Spin, during her unsuccessful campaign against District 1 Council member Margaret Chin.

    Rajkumar initially campaigned in part on the “wealth of valuable experience” she gained as President and CEO of W-Spin, an organization which claims to mentor 8 to 12-year-old girls on political leadership. However, when pressed on that so-called experience, Rajkumar admitted that the organization “’has yet to get off the ground. It has no staff and no budget’” (http://nypost.com/2013/05/28/this-over-achieving-beauty-is-running-for-city-council-as-head-of-non-profit-thats-only-skin-deep/).

    The fact that the firms, without Rajkumar, made a statement reaching an understanding on how to move forward does not change the truth about her . . . Rajkumar is hollow and deceiving. Her self-serving statements are not credit worthy.

    • Last I checked, Morgan & Morgan and Newman Ferrara "withdrew their allegations" against Rajkumar. Seems to me like an admission by these two law firms that they had wrongly attacked Rajkumar- shameful conduct by lawyers from so-called top firms. These firms both owe Rajkumar an apology, without whom I'm guessing there would not even be a lawsuit to help the Gateway tenants.

  3. No one owes Rajkumar an apology. This entire debacle can be attributed to her and, if Sanford Heisler is smart, it would do well to rid itself of Rajkumar, who has proven, once again, in her statements regarding this case, that she is bold-faced in misleading the public.

    Yes, the firms decided to team up for the greater good – – their clients. But, no, the firms did not deny Rajkumar’s acts of plagiarism in the joint press release. Instead, standing solo, Rajkumar appears to have bucked her own firm to claim that the allegations are false and to mislead the public that the firms “admitted quickly that their accusations of improper conduct were completely baseless.” Last I checked, the only thing completely baseless as relating to Rajkumar were her claims about her non-profit W-Spin, during her unsuccessful campaign against District 1 Council member Margaret Chin.

    Rajkumar initially campaigned in part on the “wealth of valuable experience” she gained as President and CEO of W-Spin, an organization which claims to mentor 8 to 12-year-old girls on political leadership. However, when pressed on that so-called experience, Rajkumar admitted that the organization “’has yet to get off the ground. It has no staff and no budget’” (http://nypost.com/2013/05/28/this-over-achieving-beauty-is-running-for-city-council-as-head-of-non-profit-thats-only-skin-deep/).

    The fact that the firms, without Rajkumar, made a statement reaching an understanding on how to move forward does not change the truth about her . . . Rajkumar is hollow and deceiving. Her self-serving statements are not credit worthy.

    • Be very careful here Nico. I'm not Jenifer and you are way out of your league. You are a hair's breadth away from a Bar investigation and a subpoena of your email and your txts with your pal who went around Gateway defaming Sanford Heisler and Jenifer. Not to mention the client solicitation issue. Deleting them will make it worse. Making influential enemies is not a smart move for ambitious political hacks with very exposed flanks. My suggestion is you look hard in the mirror and remember who your clients are and who you're not. You and your firm should stop the nonsense posts now. Responding would be a mistake. Your call.

      • Districtleaderless

        Jenifer, suddenly you're influential? Maybe you should stop wasting time plagiarizing and planning out your daily photo ops, and spend more time learning about concerns in your district, Ms. District Leader. Jumping on a issue a year late and stealing a brief for publicity doesn't show genuineness.

  4. The firms withdrew their allegations so they could work together instead of spending money and resources fighting each other in court. It has no bearing on the original allegations. Dismissing the motion (and the allegations against Rajkumar) was a necessary part of the settlement of the grievance; it has nothing to do with its veracity. In fact, if the claims were meritless, why would Rajkumar's firm agree to split its fees with two other firms and give up the profits it rightly stood to earn from its own lawsuit? They wouldn't. It is really pathetic that Rajkumar is trying to spin this as some sort of vindication of her positon.

    • Districtleaderless

      Absolutely right. If you want to know the real answer, find out what the payout structure looks like. If Sanford Heisler is getting less than 1/3, it's a clear sign that they paid to save Rajkumar's butt.

      As a previous commenter said, "follow the money."

  5. goodwill to all

    This story (or stories) keeps getting murkier; I have to read another 2000 words to NOT find this important morsel: the ruling landlord is presently trying to get the groundlease his family has been "paying" lowered to an even lower and below market price. That is the real story and of course all the political giving the organization does -at all levels- to the same people/electeds who will decide this ground lease price.

    A virtuous cycle for all, well except for tenants.

    the overpaying by the serfs I mean tenants for their electricity has been a nice gift to their bottom line over the years. And can almost hear the laughter from South Hampton because tenants need to use more electricity because of shoddy building. Cha ching!

  6. Congratulations to Maureen Koetz for taking on LeFrak. For anyone unfamiliar, LeFrak also owned (still does?) Newport Center in Jersey City. They have had the same problems as Gateway for at least a decade: Frigid living conditions. (Don't know if it is still the case.) Also, LeFrak City in Queens is a DUMP. What is it with this trash of a real estate family? Say what you will about Rajkumar, but LeFrak is more despicable. (Rajkumar is doing her thing for political advancement; LeFrak is doing it for money at the EXPENSE of real, live people and families.)

  7. We have lawyers going after Gateway in court. We have politicians and the GPTA going after Gateway at the negotiating table. We need one more avenue of attack… the rental market.

    Let's get a website or other effort to spread the word to potential tenants about the problems of Gateway: (1) drafty windows, (2) ineffective and inefficient heaters/air-conditioning units, (3) exhorbitant electric bills, (4) slow and misprogrammed elevators, (5) dangerous elevators (fast closing doors that don't bounce open until hitting a person; strange sounds when elevator moves up/down in the shaft), (6) inattentive doormen (due to poor staffing levels and responsibilities which make it easy for intruders to sneak into the buildings), (7) dryers that catch fire and/or don't fully dry clothes, (8) dog feces on many parts of the sidewalk, (9) delivery cyclists threatening pedestrians on the sidewalk, and (to keep the list down to ten items), (10) moldy bathrooms (walls and ceilings) and poor toilets.

  8. What am I missing?? Amid all this yelling and accusing, what seems important is that some nobody lawyer claims he gave Jenifer Rajkumar a draft on March 7. She and her colleagues at one of the best law firms in the country then supposedly plagiarized that draft and it took them THREE WEEKS to do it???? Does anyone really believe that???? If they wanted to plagiarize they would have done it in a day. What seems more believable is that the two firms couldn't agree on how to work together and one filed their own complaint first. The other got mad and said some untrue things and then they made a deal to avoid a really nasty fight. The rest is just BS. The idea that a District Leader who knows the facts by heart needed somebody else's work in order to file a lawsuit is just silly. Isn't it about time some reason won out and we just call this what it is?

  9. Reading all these comments is a great entertainment. Every body is an expert. Were you people sleeping all those years ? It aapears instead of Landlord you have found another adversary.

  10. All this hatred from a few shills towards a unpaid district leader, yet silence from them regarding the abject failure of our elected, paid (with large staff) politicians, who have let the deplorable situation at Gateway fester for years.

    What's wrong with this picture?

  11. downtowner who knows

    What's wrong with this picture? An "unpaid" District Leader who has publically been shown to have manipulated the facts on more than one occasion hurts the credibility of all who work hard to get issues out and don't get their names and faces in the press. You can't describe yourself as "progressive" and a "reformer" when you are also called upon to clean up your actions.

    • " all who work hard to get issues out"
      Perhaps you would care to name one?

      "Worked hard" and got no – NO – results, just cold apartments for the tenants and larcenous utility bills.
      That sounds like Fail to me.

      Take your hatred somewhere else, my friend, and stop picking on someone who will get the results we want.
      Greedy landlords like Lefrak know only one thing, force, and this lawsuit will apply the force that others failed to supply.

  12. This has happen because the so called 'GPTA" is waste of space. They always claim is down to them when tings happen, although provide no proof, but when you ask them to do or get a reason for something they have no answer. The GPTA "leader" is a lacky.

  13. Watch what our esteemed State Senator actually DOES, not what He SAYS. he has been talking for YEARS!!!!!
    (and definitely not what he says he does or says he will do–it is action action action with these guys)

    He has a chance to bring in a real attorney general and solve the real life problems–quality of life + money- of thousand s of constituents OR he can take the money from one lord of the manor and whispers of possibilities of more money if he wants to go higher in the political scrum.

    (and then of course we have to watch the attorney general-not what he promises he will do but then what he actually does)

    Will you watch with me?

  14. the bottom line is that Lefrak contributes a lot of money to political campaigns, so no politician will push them. They just don't care what happens to the residents. I think that is fairly obvious.

  15. Time for SOMETHING to be done. I lived at Gateway in 3 different units from 1987 – 1992 and the insides of the windows were covered in sheets of ice each winter even back then.

  16. The issues here are glacial cold apartments and glacial slow politicians. Silver and Chin should be on the hot seat, not Rajkumar.

  17. …And cold hearted landlord.

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