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Harfenist Kraut & Perlstein secures $500,000 verdict for woman falsely arrested by Nassau Co. police

NASSAU COUNTY, NY – Harfenist Kraut & Perlstein LLP has secured a substantial verdict in favor of their client Sunita Shah, a Long Island woman whom Nassau County police arrested without probable cause and subjected to a humiliating media circus over a battery of drug crimes she clearly did not commit. The $500,000 award secured on Ms. Shah’s behalf is a significant figure for a false arrest case and underscores the severe harm she was made to suffer by police looking to obtain media attention for the recovery of a synthetic marijuana manufacturing operation. Moreover, it serves as a strong rebuke of Nassau County Police Department’s behavior towards upstanding members of the community and its cavalier “arrest first, investigate later” attitude.

“This was an arrest that should never have happened, said Steven Harfenist, who tried the case on behalf of Mrs. Shah. “There was simply no evidence that Mrs. Shah had anything to do with the drugs, and despite numerous members of the Nassau County Police Department being present at the scene, not one could identify who authorized the arrest. Fortunately, the jury understood what happened and the damage caused to Sunita.”

Shah’s ordeal began on October 4, 2017, and it would not end until over six years later. That afternoon, her husband, Rajesh, received a call about a Williston Park property he owned and rented out. The owner of the business next to Rajesh’s property told him they had noticed a strange gas-like smell coming from the basement and had alerted the fire department. The Shahs left their friend’s house, where they had been planning their daughters’ wedding, and drove to the property to help firefighters with their investigation.

Sunita waited in the car while Rajesh unlocked the door and let the firefighters into the building. Twenty minutes had gone by without his return, so Sunita decided to check on her husband. She walked upstairs to find that her husband and the firefighters had been joined by several police officers, who were there to investigate the source of the odor. Rajesh informed the police that while he owned the property, he rented it out through a third party and was unaware of any potentially illicit activity taking place there, providing them with a copy of the lease as evidence. Rajesh called his renter to clear things up, but the renter abruptly hung up when Rajesh explained the situation.

Police discovered the reason for the renter’s reticence when they entered the basement: more than 20 pounds of loose synthetic cannabis and 5,300 bags containing more of the substance, for a total estimated street value of $250,000. Thrilled by their find, the officers were quick to arrest both the Shahs despite having no evidence that either had ever even set foot in the basement. Crucially, Sunita’s name wasn’t on the building’s title, nor did she have a key to the property. The Shahs were both charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance, second-degree reckless endangerment, and illegal use of nitrous oxide, then subjected to a “perp walk” in front of a media circus staged for the occasion. Yet even as the department took its victory lap for its bust, the case against the Shahs began to unravel.

Not only did police fail to uncover any evidence linking the Shahs with the synthetic drugs, but the officers at the scene offered wildly conflicting accounts of what had happened. Two claimed that firefighters needed to break down the door to access the property; firefighters maintained Rajesh had let them into the property voluntarily. One officer claimed that it was Sunita who had unlocked the door, not Rajesh. There was even disagreement over who had shown officers the lease, with at least one claiming it had been Sunita, seemingly an attempt to tie her to the crime.

Given the complete lack of evidence against the Shahs or even a coherent story from the investigating officers, the prosecution was forced to dismiss its case and drop the charges. But it would take another six years for Sunita to finally receive her vindication in court – and even though the jury awarded her a substantial recovery for a false arrest case, nothing can truly make Sunita whole for what she suffered.

News of Sunita’s arrest and her mugshot remain embedded in the internet. There is, as yet, no countervailing narrative available to the public, nothing online about how the charges against her proved false. The sad fact is that no amount of money can undo the reputational damage she has suffered and continues to suffer because police were overeager to make a collar. Perhaps, as she and others hold police departments accountable for their behavior, Sunita can force officers to think twice the next time they find themselves tempted to arrest first and ask questions later.

“Sunita was put through an unnecessary ordeal that will follow her for the rest of her life due to the nature of the internet,” Harfenist concluded. “This case should stand as a lesson to how decisions by police departments can permanently scar a person.”

About Harfenist Kraut & Perlstein LLP

Harfenist Kraut & Perlstein LLP is a New York law firm with offices in Lake Success and Purchase. While the firm’s litigation practice is varied and diverse—including corporate, insurance, real estate, estate, and matrimonial litigation—Steven Harfenist has long maintained a constitutional law practice involving First Amendment, false arrest, and malicious prosecution claims. Over the last 25 years he has represented both municipalities and individuals at trial in these highly complex claims.

City of Mount Vernon Held Liable to Developer for Millions

Plaintiff awarded $2.6 Million plus interest, totaling approximately $4.9 million

The City of Mount Vernon lost a major lawsuit and has been ordered to pay $2.6 Million plus interest to developer Salvatore Gizzo. After an arbitration trial before former Supreme Court Justice Betty Ellerin, the award with interest totaled approximately $4.9 Million. Gizzo was represented by Jonathan D. Kraut and Neil Torczyner of the law firm Harfenist Kraut & Perlstein LLP. The award was the result of the City’s breach and non-performance of its contractual obligations.

Click here to read more from Harfenist Kraut & Perlstein LLP.
In the media.

Steven Harfenist representing Ed Kranepool in auction dispute

NY Mets legend Ed Kranepool

Steven Harfenist is representing New York Mets legend Ed Kranepool in an auction house dispute over a missing Mickey Mantle jersey.

Mickey Mantle gave Kranepool his jersey after the 1964 Mayor’s Trophy Game. Today, it is valued at over $500,000.

Kranepool, 73, entered an oral agreement with Beckett Auctions to sell the jersey on consignment in 2016, which has since gone missing. In the lawsuit, Kranepool asserts that he wanted to put the deal in writing, but never received the necessary paperwork from Beckett. The jersey was never put up for auction and was never returned.

To read more about the case, click here.

What happens when your client unintentionally takes steps which could waive their rights?

tenant signing documents

What happens when your client unintentionally takes steps which could waive their rights? This was the question recently addressed by the Appellate Division, Second Department in Georgetown Unsold Shares, LLC v. Arlene Ledet A/K/A Arlene Solkoff. 130 A.D.3d 99, 12 N.Y.S.3d 160, 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 05185 (2d Dept. 2015).

In this matter, the landlord had served notice that they were not renewing a rent stabilized lease because the tenant was actually living out of state. During the period between the notice of non renewal and the filing of the formal petition to cancel the lease, the landlord received rent checks in the mail which were unintentionally deposited. Following the filing of the petition in the Civil Court of Queens, the tenant moved to dismiss the petition, arguing that the landlord had waived their rights to terminate by cashing the rent checks. The Civil Court agreed with the tenant and dismissed the action. Two years later, a split panel of the Appellate Term for the 2nd 11th and 13th Judicial Districts affirmed the ruling of the Civil Court. However, since the ruling of the Appellate Term was also at odds with rulings of other Appellate Term First Department, the court also granted the landlord’s motion for leave to appeal to the Appellate Division, Second Department.

The Appellate Division, Second Department in a well-written lengthy opinion, reversed the rulings of the Appellate Term and Civil Court and ruled that the acceptance of the rent check did not automatically constitute a waiver of the landlord’s rights. In so doing, the Appellate Division accepted our arguments on behalf of the landlord that a waiver of a right must be knowing and intentional. After reciting many of the cases and arguments cited in our Appellant’s Brief, the court observed that

We similarly conclude that, pursuant to the New York City Rent Stabilization Law of 1969 and the Rent Stabilization Code, a landlord’s acceptance of unsolicited rent after the expiration of a lease does not, standing alone, amount to a voluntary relinquishment of the right to contest a tenant’s possession on the basis that the leasehold is not the tenant’s primary residence. Since the very essence of a waiver is the intentional relinquishment of a known right, a waiver cannot be created via negligence, oversight, or thoughtlessness

The tenant has since filed for and received leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals.

Five Million Dollar Jury Verdict Awarded to Plaintiff Against County of Nassau

Newsday newspaper article

The law firm of Harfenist Kraut & Perlstein LLP represented plaintiff, Martin Tretola; who prevailed in a lawsuit for violation of his civil rights. The jury awarded Tretola, the owner of a gun shop in Seaford, Five Million ($5,000,000.00) Dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. The jury determined that Tretola, who was arrested on June 1, 2007 by Nassau County Police Officer Erik Faltings, had been wronged when Faltings arrested Tretola and accused him of a felony – Reckless Endangerment in the First Degree. The charge was based on Faltings false claim that Tretola was operating a “makeshift gun range” in the shop where Tretola performed gunsmith repairs.

The Reckless Endangerment charges were dismissed outright against Tretola by the Nassau County District Attorney in 2008 and charges filed by the Town of Hempstead were also dismissed after trial in 2008.

Officer Faltings, who works in the pistol licensing section of the Nassau County Police Department, had a disagreement with Tretola some months before the arrest. The disagreement began when he asked Tretola, by telephone, to release a handgun for a customer without what Tretola believed was the required paperwork for the release of the gun. Tretola refused to release the gun without the proper paperwork. The false arrest was predicated on Faltings’s claim that gun repair and testing took place near an “active gas heater.” The “active” gas line in reality was just a pipe that had been inactive for decades – something Faltings and other members of the Nassau County Police Department who raided Tretola’s store admittedly never even bothered to check.

Tretola was represented by Steven Jay Harfenist of Harfenist Kraut & Perlstein LLP, a litigation firm with offices in Nassau and Westchester Counties. When asked for his reaction to the verdict, Mr. Harfenist said, “When the government goes too far, it is the job of citizens to stop them and that is exactly what this jury did.” He added, “The jury saw through the defendant’s transparent attempts to cover up the defendant’s malicious abuse of his power.”

Faltings and the County of Nassau were represented by the Nassau County Attorneys’ Office. The case was tried before the Honorable Denis Hurley of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Suit Over Developer’s Failure to Give Notice Ruled Time Barred

Chelsea building

Under the New York City Administrative Code, where construction of a building will cause a neighboring property to become non-compliant with the City’s chimney requirements, the developer must provide the building owner with specified notice that the new structure will cause non-conformity for the existing building. While the statute requiring notice provides a remedy to the affected building owner, the statute of limitations to assert that remedy runs not from when the notice was provided but from when a temporary certificate of occupancy is issued. So held the Appellate Division, First Department in West Chelsea Building v. Guttman.

In West Chelsea Building, Steven J. Harfenist and Andrew C. Lang, representing the developer, successfully persuaded the Appellate Division that the affected building’s time to commence a lawsuit over the non-conformity caused by the developer was not tolled by the failure of the developer to provide the statutory notice. The lack of any language in the notice statute creating a tolling of the statute of limitations doomed any claim filed after three years from the issuance of the temporary certificate of occupancy- the event the Appellate Division determined started the time to commence a law suit.

Source: New York Law Journal