Landlords will sometimes ask if they can simply change the locks on their deadbeat tenants. I have to very quickly advise the landlord not to do that, or else.
Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law § 711 states that "[a] tenant ... shall not be removed from possession except in a special proceeding." In instances where a landlord (or an agent of the landlord) simply changes the locks, or otherwise bars a tenant from being in possession of the premises, the eviction will be considered illegal, and will subject the landlord to civil damages. Carter v. Andriani, 84 A.D.2d 513, 443 N.Y.S.2d 157 (1st Dept. 1981).
What rights do a tenant have if he or she has been subject to an illegal eviction? The tenant can bring an action in civil court to do one or both of the following: First, the tenant can seek to be put back in possession. Simply, this means the Tenant will ask the Court to force the landlord to allow him or her to return to the apartment.
Second, whether the Tenant is allowed to return to the apartment or not, the Tenant can seek monetary damages. In addition to attorney's fees, the tenant can seek compensatory damages, which are the costs associated with their living situation while the case is pending (i.e., hotel/motel room, or the difference in cost of a more expensive apartment), the cost of moving their belongings, the cost difference for a new apartment for the balance of the lease term, and any other items associated with their temporary living situation. Furthermore, RPAPL § 853 authorizes a Court (but does not require) to award treble damages (except for the attorney's fees). In addition, a tenant can seek punitive damages against the landlord if the conduct in prosecuting the illegal eviction is determined to be heinous or reprehensible (Jacobs v. 200 East 36th Owners Corp., 281 A.D.2d 281, 722 N.Y.S.2d 137 [1st Dept. 2001]), or egregious or malicious (Williams v. Llorente, 115 Misc.2d 171, 454 N.Y.S.2d 930 [Sup. Ct. App. Term, 1982]).
A tenant can get both punitive damages AND treble compensatory damages if the circumstances so warrant.
Only an authorized law enforcement official (county sheriff, city marshal or authorized town constable) can dispossess a tenant, and only by executing a warrant of eviction, signed by a judge or justice of a town or village court.
When seeking to evict a tenant for any reason, it is highly advisable to consult with an attorney.