Defendant moving to dismiss an action must prove the merits of its case

Bakcheva v Law Offices of Stein & Assoc., 2019 NY Slip Op 00844 [2d Dept Feb. 6, 2019] is a good reminder that a defendant moving to dismiss an action must prove the merits of its case. The court held:

A plaintiff seeking to recover damages for legal malpractice must prove that the defendant attorney failed to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession, and that the breach of this duty proximately caused the plaintiff to sustain actual and ascertainable damages (see McCoy v. Feinman, 99 N.Y.2d 295, 301–302, 755 N.Y.S.2d 693, 785 N.E.2d 714; Biberaj v. Acocella, 120 A.D.3d 1285, 1286, 993 N.Y.S.2d 64). A defendant seeking summary judgment dismissing a legal malpractice cause of action has the burden of establishing prima facie that he or she did not fail to exercise such skill and knowledge, or that the claimed departure did not proximately cause the plaintiff to sustain damages (see Iannucci v. Kucker & Bruh, LLP, 161 A.D.3d 959, 960, 77 N.Y.S.3d 118; Betz v. Blatt, 160 A.D.3d 696, 698, 74 N.Y.S.3d 75). The defendant must affirmatively demonstrate the merits of a defense, rather than merely pointing out gaps in the plaintiff’s proof (see Iannucci v. Kucker & Bruh, LLP, 161 A.D.3d at 960, 77 N.Y.S.3d 118).

We agree with the Supreme Court that the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment dismissing the legal malpractice cause of action. Although the defendants established their prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, the plaintiff raised a triable issue of fact in opposition. Specifically, the plaintiff submitted evidence that she had informed the defendants, prior to the closing, that the main portion of the apartment was on the seventh floor of the building and that the apartment included a second level. According to the plaintiff, the defendants committed malpractice because they failed to recognize the illegality of the second level, since neither the certificate of occupancy nor the approved condominium offering plan authorized the existence of an eighth floor to the condominium.

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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Issue of fact concerning the continuous representation doctrine

…issue of fact concerning the continuous representation doctrine…

In an action brought by a client against his law firm, the appellate court reversed the granting of the law firm’s motion for summary judgment based upon an issue of fact concerning the continuous representation doctrine.

Under the continuous representation doctrine, a person seeking professional assistance is placed in a difficult position if required to sue his or her attorney while the attorney continues to represent them on a particular legal matter (Shumsky v. Eisenstein, 96 N.Y.2d 164, 167–168, 726 N.Y.S.2d 365, 750 N.E.2d 67 [2001] ). Accordingly, the doctrine tolls the running of the statute of limitations on malpractice claims until the ongoing representation is completed (id.). However, the application of this doctrine is limited “to the course of representation concerning a specific legal matter,” and is not applicable to the client’s “continuing general relationship with a lawyer … involving only routine contact for miscellaneous legal representation … unrelated to the matter upon which the allegations of malpractice are predicated” (id. at 168, 726 N.Y.S.2d 365, 750 N.E.2d 67). The record presents an issue of fact as to whether defendant continuously represented plaintiff in connection with a personal injury claim based on the accident, such as to toll the statute of limitations during that time (see Glamm v. Allen, 57 N.Y.2d 87, 94, 453 N.Y.S.2d 674, 439 N.E.2d 390 [1982]; Waggoner v. Caruso, 68 A.D.3d 1, 6–7, 886 N.Y.S.2d 368 [1st Dept. 2009] ). Encalada v McCarthy, Chachanover & Rosado, LLP, 160 AD3d 475 [1st Dept 2018].

R. A. Klass
Your Court Street Lawyer

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Summary judgment is a drastic remedy.

Summary judgment is a drastic remedy that should be granted only if no triable issues of fact exist and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Alvarez v. Prospect Hosp., 68 N.Y.2d 320, 324 [1986]; Andre v. Pomeroy, 35 N.Y.2d 361, 364 [1974]. The party moving for summary judgment must make a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, tendering sufficient evidence in admissible form demonstrating the absence of material issues of fact. Winegrad v. New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 N.Y.2d 851, 853 [1985]; CPLR 3212[b].

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Summary Judgment Motion Should Be Denied When There Are Material Issues of Fact

On a motion for summary judgment, it is well-settled that the movant must make a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, tendering sufficient evidence to demonstrate the absence of any material issues of fact. If the movant fails to make such a showing, then the motion must be denied, regardless of the sufficiency of the opposing papers. Once a showing has been made, the burden shifts to the party opposing the motion to produce evidentiary proof in admissible form sufficient to establish the existence of material issues of fact which require a trial of the action. See Zuckerman v. City of New York, 49 NY2d 557 [1980]; SRM Card Shop v. 1740 Broadway Associates, 2 AD3d 136 [1 Dept. 2003]; Romano v. St. Vincent’s Medical Center of Richmond, 178 AD2d 467 [2 Dept. 1991].

by Richard A. Klass, Esq.

———–
copyr. 2012 Richard A. Klass, Esq.
The firm’s website: www.CourtStreetLaw.com
Richard A. Klass, Esq., maintains a law firm engaged in civil litigation at 16 Court Street, 28th Floor, Brooklyn Heights, New York.
He may be reached at (718) COURT-ST or e-ml to RichKlass@courtstreetlaw.com with any questions.
Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

Ownership of Property among Two Sets of Spouses

…the court held that a grant of real property to a husband and wife creates a tenancy by the entirety “unless expressly declared to be a joint tenancy or tenancy in common….”

“Rodriguez’s Right to 50% of the Property Was Created by Operation of Law”

In this case, the Deed to the subject real property indicated ownership of the property as follows:

“GILBERTO HERNANDEZ and CONSOLACION HERNANDEZ, HIS WIFE … AND ERLINDA QUE and ELPIDIO RODRIGUEZ, HER HUSBAND.”

As to the 50% interest in the property owned by movant  Elpidio Rodriguez and his wife, Erlinda Que, they owned their share as tenants by the entirety. Based upon the substantial case law in New York State, Mr. Rodriguez and Erlinda Que took ownership of their half-share as husband and wife, have continued as such until Erlinda Que’s death.

In Prario v. Novo, 168 Misc.2d 610 (Sup. Ct., Westchester Co. 1996), the court held that a grant of real property to a husband and wife creates a tenancy by the entirety “unless expressly declared to be a joint tenancy or tenancy in common.”  Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Section 6-2.2(b). A joint tenancy is subject to partition during the lifetimes of the joint tenants (24 N.Y.Jur.2d, Cotenancy and Partition, Section 33; 3A Warren’s Weed, New York Real Property, Partition, Section 3.03; id., vol. 2A, Joint Tenants, Section 4.01) whereas a tenancy by the entirety cannot be divided absent consent of both spouses or upon a divorce (24 N.Y.Jur.2d, Cotenancy and Partition, §§ 38, 56; 3A Warren’s Weed, op. cit., Partition, Section 3.12). The tenancy by the entirety can be changed by voluntary act of the couple, divorce or death.

In Goldman v. Goldman, 95 NY2d 120 (2000), the Court of Appeals noted that a tenancy by the entirety is a form of real property ownership available only to parties married at the time of the conveyance (Kahn v. Kahn, 43 N.Y.2d 203, 207, 401 N.Y.S.2d 47, 371 N.E.2d 809). As tenants by the entirety, both spouses enjoy an equal right to possession of and profits yielded by the property (Neilitz v. Neilitz, 307 N.Y. 882, 122 N.E.2d 924). Additionally, “each tenant may sell, mortgage or otherwise encumber his or her rights in the property, subject to the continuing rights of the other” (V.R.W., Inc. v. Klein, 68 N.Y.2d 560, 565, 510 N.Y.S.2d 848, 503 N.E.2d 496). Only if the legal relationship between the husband and wife is judicially altered through divorce, annulment or legal separation, does the tenancy by the entirety converts to a tenancy in common (Kahn v. Kahn, 43 N.Y.2d, supra, at 207, 401 N.Y.S.2d 47, 371 N.E.2d 809).

Courts have recognized that a tenancy by the entirety cannot be altered without the mutual consent of the spouses or divorce. In Sciacca v. Sciacca, 185 Misc.2d 105 (Sup. Ct. Queens Co. 2000), the court held that: “As articulated by the Court of Appeals in Kahn v. Kahn, 43 N.Y.2d 203, 401 N.Y.S.2d 47, 371 N.E.2d 809, a court cannot direct the disposition of property held by married couples as tenants by the entirety until the court first alters the marital status, such as by entering a judgment of divorce or separation. Indeed, the law is long-settled that neither entirety tenant may, without the consent of the other, dispose of any part of the property to defeat the right of survivorship.” Citing to Hiles v. Fisher, 144 N.Y. 306, 39 N.E. 337.)

The Court of Appeals held, in Hiles v. Fisher, 144 NY 306 (1895), that the husband had a right to mortgage his interest, which was a right to the use of an undivided half of the estate during the joint lives, and to the fee in case he survived his wife; and by the foreclosure and sale the plaintiff acquired this interest, and became a tenant, in common with the wife, of the premises, subject to her right of survivorship.

Revisiting this issue, in V.R.W., Inc. v. Klein, 68 NY2d 560 (1986), the Court of Appeals held:

What makes this right of survivorship unique and differentiates it from the right of survivorship inherent in an ordinary joint tenancy is that it remains fixed and cannot be destroyed without the consent of both spouses (see, Kahn v. Kahn, 43 N.Y.2d 203, 401 N.Y.S.2d 47, 371 N.E.2d 809; compare, Matter of Polizzo, 308 N.Y. 517, 127 N.E.2d 316; Matter of Suter, 258 N.Y. 104, 179 N.E. 310, with Matter of Klatzl, supra, 216 N.Y. at pp. 86-87, 110 N.E. 181; Hiles v. Fisher, supra). As long as the marriage remains legally intact, both parties continue to be seized of the whole, and the death of one merely results in the defeasance of the deceased spouse’s coextensive interest in the property (see, Stelz v. Shreck, supra, 128 N.Y. at p. 266, 28 N.E. 510; Bertles v. Nunan, supra, at p. 156). Similarly, involuntary partition is not available to either cotenant as a means of severing the tenancy by the entirety, since a contrary rule would permit a vindictive or irresponsible spouse to deprive the other of the comforts of the marital home (see, Kahn v. Kahn, supra, 43 N.Y.2d at p. 208, 401 N.Y.S.2d 47, 371 N.E.2d 809; Anello v. Anello, 22 A.D.2d 694, 253 N.Y.S.2d 759; Vollaro v. Vollaro, 144 App.Div. 242, 129 N.Y.S. 43).

Accordingly, the ownership interests of Mr. Rodriguez and Erlinda Que as “husband and wife” created a tenancy by the entirety. Upon the death of his wife, Mr. Rodriguez became the owner of her share by operation of law; any Last Will and Testament of Erlinda Que would not alter his rights.

Long-established New York law is that real property held as tenants by entirety does not pass under the Will of a decedent spouse. In re Rothko’s Estate, 77 Misc.2d 168 [Sur. Ct., NY Co. 1974]; In re Strong’s Will, 171 Misc. 445 [Sur. Ct., Monroe Co. 1939] (“A severance of a tenancy by the entirety cannot be effected by the unilateral last will of one of the spouses alone.” Citing to Levenson v. Levenson, 229 AD 402 [2 Dept. 1930]).

On the death of the first tenant by the entirety of real property, his estate ceases to have any interest in such property. Matter of Harris’ Estate, 88 Misc.2d 60 [1976], affirmed 61 AD2d 881.

by Richard A. Klass, Esq.

———–
copyr. 2012 Richard A. Klass, Esq.
The firm’s website: www.CourtStreetLaw.com
Richard A. Klass, Esq., maintains a law firm engaged in civil litigation at 16 Court Street, 28th Floor, Brooklyn Heights, New York.
He may be reached at (718) COURT-ST or e-ml to RichKlass@courtstreetlaw.com with any questions.
Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

Summary Judgment Denied When Discovery Pending

Summary judgment should be denied where it appears that relevant evidence needed to oppose the motion is within the exclusive knowledge of the movant, and the opposing party has not had a reasonable opportunity for disclosure prior to the motion for summary judgment. See CPLR 3212(f) (motion for summary judgment should be denied where it appears that facts essential to the motion exist but cannot then be stated due to the absence of discovery). See also, Logan v. City of New York, 148 AD2d 167 [1 Dept. 1989]; Simpson v. Term Industries, 126 AD2d 484 [1 Dept. 1987].

Finally, the failure of a movant to comply with discovery demands may justify the denial of the summary judgment motion. See Jones v. Town of Delaware, 251 AD2d 876 [3 Dept. 1998]. This is especially so where the information sought in the pending discovery demand is clearly specified and relevant to the issues raised by the motion, the motion should be denied. Campbell v. City of New York, 220 AD2d 476 [2 Dept. 1995]; Elliot v. County of Nassau, 53 AD3d 561 [2 Dept. 2008] (A party should be afforded a reasonable opportunity to conduct discovery prior to the determination of a motion for summary judgment).

by Richard A. Klass, Esq.

———–
copyr. 2012 Richard A. Klass, Esq.
The firm’s website: www.CourtStreetLaw.com
Richard A. Klass, Esq., maintains a law firm engaged in civil litigation at 16 Court Street, 28th Floor, Brooklyn Heights, New York.
He may be reached at (718) COURT-ST or e-ml to RichKlass@courtstreetlaw.com with any questions.
Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

Making Sure the Guarantor is a “Good Guy.”

Painting by Alexander Roslin of elegant woman, presumably of status, with black shawl and fan gazing directly at viewer.

In 1997, a landlord rented a commercial space to a tire company pursuant to a commercial lease agreement. The tenant defaulted in the payment of rent, owing the landlord the claimed arrearage sum of $157,000. To collect the rent arrears, the landlord came to Richard A. Klass, Your Court Street Lawyer to recover.


When the lease was entered into, the president of the tenant executed the lease agreement both as president of the tenant and as personal guarantor of performance and payment of rent. The initial term of the lease agreement was for two years, and it provided for two-year renewal periods, with all of the terms and conditions of the original lease expressly reserved. The president of the tenant signed letter agreements extending the lease four times, the last time being December 20, 2004.


The landlord brought a motion for summary judgment against the personal guarantor of the lease, seeking payment of all outstanding arrears; the guarantor cross-moved for summary judgment, seeking to dismiss the case. The guarantor contended that he was not a proper party, claiming that he notified the landlord in February 2005 that the tenant was going out of business and all of its assets were being transferred to a different entity, effective March 2005. The landlord refuted receiving this notice from the guarantor.

 

Motion for Summary Judgment:

The term “summary judgment” means that a litigant is claiming that there is no reason to have a trial (either by judge or jury) because the case can be decided based upon application of the law. A “motion” is basically a request for a judge to take some sort of action.
 

Summary judgment is a drastic remedy, as it deprives a party of his day in court, and should be granted when it is clear that there are no triable issues of fact. See, Alvarez v. Prospect Hospital, 68 NY2d 320 [1986]. The burden is upon the moving party (the landlord in this case) to make a prima facie (Latin term for “by its first instance”) showing that the movant is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law by presenting evidence in admissible form demonstrating the absence of any material facts. See, Giuffrida v. Citibank, 100 NY2d 72 [2003]. The failure to make that showing requires the denial of the motion regardless of the adequacy of the opposing papers. See, Ayotte v. Gervasio, 81 NY2d 1062 [1993]. Once a prima facie showing has been made, the burden of proof shifts to the opposing party (the tenant in this case) to produce evidentiary proof sufficient to establish the existence of material issues of fact which necessitate a trial.


In this case, the judge decided that the landlord laid out its case that the tenant owed rent arrears. This was based upon the evidence submitted with the motion, including the written lease agreement, the letters extending the lease for several additional terms, and the rent ledger. The judge dismissed the evidence presented by the guarantor, which amounted to his affidavit and the supposed notice that the tenant was ceasing business and a new company would be the tenant going forward.

 

Restriction on Assignment of Lease:

The argument that the tenant had given notice of assignment of the lease to a new company was refuted by the specific provisions of the lease. A provision in a lease which restricts assignment or subletting, and requires the consent of the landlord prior to doing so, is enforceable. See, Matter of Clason Management Co. v. Altman, 40 AD2d 635 [1 Dept. 1972]. The lease agreement at issue had such a restriction, which explicitly barred the tenant from assigning or transferring the lease or subletting the premises unless the tenant obtained the prior written consent of the landlord. Thus, even if the landlord did receive the letter from the guarantor in February 2005, there was no showing that the mandated consent was ever procured from the landlord.

 

Enforceability of Personal Guaranty:

It is no secret to landlords that, unless the incoming tenant is a large corporation, a commercial tenant is essentially a shell entity whose assets can disappear overnight (nowadays, even large corporations could qualify). So, landlords insist upon obtaining signed personal guaranties from the principals of the corporate tenants. Sometimes, the guaranty will be for all lease obligations through the end of the lease term, and sometimes, the guaranty will be effective through the date the tenant physically moves out of the premises – the proverbial “good guy clause.”


In this case, the landlord obtained the guaranty through the end of the lease term, but still expected the guarantor to be a “good guy” and pay the rent. Generally, a guaranty is to be interpreted in the strictest manner. See, White Rose Food v. Saleh, 99 NY2d 589 [2003]. But it is also the case that a personal guaranty which contains language of a continuing obligation is enforceable and survives payment of the original indebtedness. USI Capital and Leasing v. Chertock, 172 AD2d 235 [1 Dept. 1991]. Thus, termination of a continuing personal guaranty requires compliance with the provisions governing termination expressly set forth in the guaranty. In the absence of some writing which addresses termination, a guaranty which is silent on that issue remains in full force and effect. See, Chemical Bank v. Geronimo Auto Parts Corp., 224 AD2d 461 [1 Dept. 1996]. In this case, the personal guaranty could not be canceled merely by the president of the tenant sending a notice, indicating that the old company was going out and a new one was coming in.


In granting the landlord’s motion for summary judgment, the judge held that the personal guarantor is liable to the landlord, based upon his guarantee of the tenant’s lease obligations. Ribellino v. Fleet 2000, Inc. and Rosenfeld, Sup. Ct., Kings Co. Index No. 7501/2008 [Decision dated October 7, 2009].

— Richard A. Klass, Esq.

 

©2009 Richard A. Klass. Art credits: The Lady with the Veil (Marie-Suzanne Giroust) (1768). Artist: Alexander Roslin. Marketing by The Innovation Works, Inc.

———–
copyr. 2011 Richard A. Klass, Esq.
The firm’s website: www.CourtStreetLaw.com
Richard A. Klass, Esq., maintains a law firm engaged in civil litigation at 16 Court Street, 28th Floor, Brooklyn Heights, New York.
He may be reached at (718) COURT-ST or e-ml to RichKlass@courtstreetlaw.com with any questions.
Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

The (Property) Bonds of Matrimony That Can’t Be Broken

Painting by August Macke of a man and woman, from the side. The woman is dressed in white and largely obscures the man. They appear to be walking to the right.

Two sisters and their respective husbands decided to purchase a two-family house in The Bronx in 1995. At the closing, they took title to the property, reflected on the Deed, as follows: “Gilberto Hernandez and Consolacion Hernandez, his wife …. And Erlinda Que and Elpidio Rodriguez, her husband.” Erlinda executed her Last Will and Testament, in which she devised her “half share and interest in the real property” to her sister, Consolacion, and her husband, Elpidio, in equal shares. In December 2000, Erlinda passed away, survived by her husband, Elpidio.


For a long time after Erlinda’s death, Elpidio and his deceased wife’s sister continued to maintain the house. At some point, he remarried and wanted to sell it and move. And, when they all couldn’t agree on how to accomplish this, a lawsuit was initiated called a “Partition and Sale” action. In this type of lawsuit, the parties ask a judge to order the property sold at auction.


The decedent’s sister and her husband, along with the nominated executor under the Will, claimed that ownership of the Bronx property passed under Erlinda’s Last Will and Testament. Therefore, they claimed that half of Erlinda’s quarter-share went to Consolacion (or one-eighth of the total interest in the property), and half of Erlinda’s quarter-share went to Elpidio. By their claim, Elpidio would be entitled to only 37.5% of the house.


Elpidio, the decedent’s surviving spouse, came to Richard A. Klass, Your Court Street Lawyer, for legal advice. Elpidio felt that, as Erlinda’s husband, he should get more.

Tenancy by the Entirety:

One of the “perks” of being married is that real property deeded to a husband and wife creates a “tenancy by the entirety,” under New York’s Estates Powers and Trusts Law Section 6-2.2(b). This form of ownership, among other things, prevents creditors of one spouse from forcing the sale of the house and easily transfers title to one spouse upon the death of the other. The exception to this rule about a tenancy by the entirety is if the Deed expressly declares it to be a joint tenancy or tenancy in common (where each spouse owns a divisible share).


Commonly, the Deed to a husband and wife will indicate that they are married, with language such as “A and B, as husband and wife” or “A and B, his wife” or “A and B, her husband.” This form of ownership, by statute, cannot be altered or changed without the mutual consent of the spouses or a divorce. Obviously, the ownership of a house by spouses as a tenancy by the entirety gives comfort that one spouse cannot sell his/her interest in the house without the other spouse’s consent. Only in limited circumstances, such as a divorce proceeding or bankruptcy case, can a court force the disposition of a house owned by the spouses in this form without their consent.

Granting of Summary Judgment:

The term “summary judgment” means that the litigant believes that there are no issues of fact which necessitate a trial before a judge or jury. When one litigant “moves” or asks the judge to grant summary judgment, he must present proof (in admissible form) which supports the request and which demonstrates that the matter may be decided on the law alone. It can then be said that the movant has established his“prima facie” case (meaning “at first sight”). Then, the other side to the litigation must present the judge with proof that there are genuine factual issues, and that the matter cannot be decided without a trial. Many readers will understand that judges deny summary judgment motions in most cases because they want to give litigants their day in court, and the facts are not always the facts.


In the probate proceeding in the Surrogate’s Court for Bronx County, Elpidio asked the Surrogate to grant him “summary judgment” on his claim that he is entitled to Erlinda’s entire interest in the house. The ‘Exhibit A’ proof, offered by Elpidio that he was entitled to Erlinda’s whole share, was the Deed itself. There was no express declaration in the Deed that it had been conveyed or transferred to Elpidio and Erlinda as anything other than husband and wife.


In granting summary judgment to Elpidio, in In the Estate of Erlinda Que, Deceased [Surrogate’s Court, Bronx County, February 25, 2010], Surrogate Holzman determined that, despite the language of Erlinda’s Last Will and Testament granting her sister a half-share of her interest in the house, Elpidio should be declared the full owner of half or 50% of the whole house. Specifically, Surrogate Holzman held that:

“A tenancy by the entirety is different from both a tenancy in common and a joint tenancy in that ‘it remains fixed and cannot be destroyed without the consent of both parties’ for ‘as long as the marriage remains legally intact,’ with both parties continuing ‘to be seized of the whole, and the death of one merely results in the defeasance of the deceased spouse’s coextensive interest in the property.’ (V.R.W. Inc. v. Klein, 68 NY2d 560 [1986].)”

Accordingly, by operation of law, the death of Erlinda, one of the spouses, resulted in that spouse/tenant no longer having an interest in the property, with Elpidio, as the surviving spouse, now owning her share as well as his own. Surrogate Holzman recognized the long-standing rule that “a severance of a tenancy by the entirety cannot be effectuated by the unilateral last will of one of the spouses alone.” (Matter of Strong, 171 Misc. 445 [1939].

 
— by Richard A. Klass, Esq.

Credits:
Paar im Walde (1912). by artist August Macke (1887-1914).
Photo of Richard Klass by Tom Urgo, 2008.
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The Innovation Works, Inc.



———–
copyr. 2010 and 2011 Richard A. Klass, Esq.
The firm’s website: www.CourtStreetLaw.com
Richard A. Klass, Esq., maintains a law firm engaged in civil litigation at 16 Court Street, 28th Floor, Brooklyn Heights, New York.
He may be reached at (718) COURT-ST or e-ml to RichKlass@courtstreetlaw.com with any questions.
Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.