Constance Messinger was thrilled to rent a room at 205 Nassau Street late last year. It was close to her job and she paid nearly $2,000 as a security deposit and first month’s rent.
But she said things turned sour the day she arrived to move in.
Landlord Sanford Zeitler told her the room was no longer available. She asked for her security deposit back, but says Zeitler refused.
Instead, he offered a $600-per month 7-foot by 11-foot closet in the back of a bathroom used by eight men, she said.
“He said take the room or you leave,” Messinger said. Without money or options, she agreed to take the room.
Four months later she said was forced to leave after learning the room was an illegal rental and the building infested with bedbugs.
She said Zeitler refused to help her or refund her security deposit.
“He said ‘Sue me like everyone else,’” Messinger said.
Now Princeton attorney Roger Martindell has done just that, filing two lawsuits in Superior Court in Trenton on April 27, alleging that defendent Zeitler, owner of 205 Nassau Street and other commercial and residential rental buildings in and around Princeton, Birch Realty Co. and Princeton Telephone Answering Service, Inc. deliberately rented to Messinger and another defendant space that could not be legally used, then evicted them and kept their security deposits.
Birch Realthy and Princeton Telephone Answering Service are owned and/or controlled by Zeitler, the suits allege.
Besides Messinger, Martindell filed suit on behalf of Aygul Caner, a tenant who rented retail space on the first floor of 205 Nassau Street. She invested thousands of dollars into improving the space, only to be served with a zoning violation several months later because the space was not legally authorized for retail use.
Both suits were served on Zeitler on Wednesday, May 9 and he now has 35 days to respond, although Martindell said Zeitler has been aware of the issues for months.
“Ms. Caner and Ms. Messinger are not just seeking money damages for their losses,” said Martindell, who is also a member of Princeton Borough Council. “They are seeking to put Mr. Zeitler out of business, as they are entitled to do under New Jersey’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, because it is clear that he regularly engages in the deliberate abuse of tenants every year.”
Zeitler was working in an office at 205 Nassau Street on Friday, May 11, but declined to comment on the lawsuits or allegations against him.
According to court documents, Caner and Messinger’s allegations are supported by complaints received from 12 other Zeitler tenants who suffered similar treatment over 15 years.
In 2009, Martindell represented another former Zeitler tenant, Alicia Barrita, under similar circumstances. Zeitler paid $55,000 to settle that case, Martindell said.
The building at 205 Nassau Street is the only legal rooming house in Princeton Borough. In recent years, inspections by state and municipal fire, health and housing authorities have resulted in multiple violations to Zeitler, including fire safety hazards and bedbug infestations.
“When Mr. Zeitler stole Mrs. Messinger’s money and relegated her to the bathroom closet, he violated the local zoning code, the State fire and housing code, and common human decency,” Martindell said.
Messinger said the room she lived in behind the bathroom was hot and only fit an inflatable twin air mattress and a few belongings, but she tried to make the best of it despite the stench of urine and feces coming from the broken toilet in the next room.
She said she helped secure discounted paint and fixtures from her employer at Smith’s Ace Hardware for bathroom repairs, but claims Zeitler never reimbursed her and instead raised her rent by $15 per week to pay for the work.
“I accepted it for what it was and I tried to make it a home for me,” Messinger said. “It was a horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible living situation there. I hated it there, but I had no way out because I had no money.”
She remembers the day in April when Zeitler called her at work and told her to come home right away. When she arrived at 205 Nassau Street, the Zeitler was packing her belongings into large black bags. White powder was everywhere, and Messinger later learned it was for bedbugs.
Borough officials were walking into 205 Nassau Street as Messinger walked out. They told her the landlord was responsible for helping her find a place to stay. Zeitler let her sleep one night in the building’s hallway and another night in a room rented to someone else.
The next day she had to leave. She has since found temporary housing.
While the RICO statute is most commonly used to in cases involving organized crime, Martindell said it is covers any intentional effort to illegally take property of tenants by theft.
“We believe that in this case RICO is an appropriate charge and the RICO remedies are appropriate to put Mr. Zeitler out of business because he has become a predator victimizing local persons who are tenants in his buildings. “