Judge sends lenders’ suit back to state court

Stuyvesant Town leasing office (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Stuyvesant Town leasing office (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

A federal court judge has decided that the lawsuit against CWCapital by a group of junior lenders involved in Stuyvesant Town should be handled by a state court, as the lenders had been hoping.

It was on Monday when United States District Judge Alison Nathan remanded the litigation to the New York State court where it was originally filed.

In the decision, Nathan wrote that “this case invokes no comparable federal interest, scheme or agency. Rather it is a contract dispute between private parties, turning almost entirely on construction of a private contract, and failing to present any dispositive question of federal law.”

The lawsuit was filed last summer after CWCapital took ownership of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper through a deed, rather than holding a planned foreclosure sale on mezzanine debt. A group of lenders represented by Centerbridge Partners had hoped for a chance to buy a key piece of the mezzanine or junior debt and accused CW of violating an intercreditor agreement. The deed-in-lieu of auction wipes out the value of the junior debt, they’d argued, allowing CW to reap an “unearned windfall” when the property is sold.

They also accused CW of inflating the interest it was owed to calculate the total senior debt at $4.4 billion.

However, in its arguments, the lenders said that even though they believe CW’s figures are wrong, they still stand to “reap windfall profits regardless of how the interest rate is calculated on the senior loan.”

Even when using CW’s “incorrect and vastly overstated senior loan payoff amount of $4.4 billion, the value of Stuy Town is still worth hundreds of millions of dollars more,” the lenders said.

News of the court action was first reported on Tuesday by Law360, a legal news service.

Michele de Milly, a spokesperson for Centerbridge, declined to comment on the latest court action. Brian Moriarty, a spokesperson for CWCapital, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Last month, the total amount of debt as calculated by CW reached $4.7 billion, a figure announced at a Tenants Association meeting by Council Member Dan Garodnick. He explained the amount was due to interest and fees. It’s also the amount that was reportedly being prepared as a bid by CWCapital’s parent company, Fortress. The Tenants Association has since said it is still hoping for a tenant-led condo conversion with partner Brookfield.

Following the suit being remanded, Susan Steinberg, chair of the ST-PCV Tenants Association said it basically just means more waiting around for would-be buyers.

“The decision to remand the case back to state court means that if CWCapital is waiting to settle with Centerbridge et. al. before proceeding with plans to sell, it will have a longer wait,” said Steinberg. “Ultimately, so will would-be buyers, including the tenants here. Whether the remand is a good or a bad thing for either the plaintiffs or the defendants will depend on which judge the case comes before. We will stay tuned.”

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Guterman hopes to get 5,000 tenants to hire him

By Sabina Mollot
Developer Gerald Guterman, who recently expressed his desire to see Stuyvesant Town tenants organize to demand a conversion and re-settle the “Roberts” and MCI settlements, while also hiring him as a consultant to help with the effort, has continued to pursue tenants as clients by drawing up a contract over the weekend.

However, he wants to see at least 5,000 tenants participate in such an effort. Otherwise, he warned, his LLC company, West Palm Beach-based Guterman Partners, won’t take the job.
“Before we can accept an ST/PCV assignment, it will be necessary for at least five thousand (5,000) separate residents families to sign a Consulting Agreement with a consulting subsidiary of Guterman Partners, LLC,” he said.
In exchange for his services as an independent contractor, he’d get $10 per participant (a total of at least $50,000).

His statement was part of a letter he wrote directed to tenants (though so far unmailed) asking them a number of questions such as whether tenants were told they’d be charged for the MCIs they received and for the “Roberts” tenants, if they received “the full dollar recovery” in damages for all the rent they overpaid. The letter also went into quality of life issues.

“ST/PCV residents, were you told (when you signed your lease) that the building you lived in was being converted to ‘high population’ student/dormitory housing?” He also blasted the recent concerts in the Oval as a scheme to attract students.
He also said, after the news that CW’s parent company Fortress was preparing a bid of $4.7 billion, that he wasn’t sure he was still interested in preparing a bid of his own, preferring instead to be a consultant in a tenant-led effort.

The contract itself, while saying Guterman would provide consulting services, makes no mention of the re-settlement of litigation, student housing or other issues he wants tenants to fight. Those issues are instead mentioned in the letter. Questions include asking if tenants were told, upon signing their leases, that the Oval would be rented out for commercial purposes or that businesses would come “alive” right on the Oval or that the quiet of tenants’ apartments would be disrupted “because the landlord is using mass-entertainment to attract students to the recently converted dormitory housing?”
He also invited tenants to contact him through the email address: stpcv@gutermanpartners.com.

A spokesperson for CWCapital declined to comment on Guterman’s letter.

As for the odds of Guterman being able to secure all the signatures he wants, it may prove a challenge. In May, 2013, attorneys representing tenants in the “Roberts” suit had a tough time just getting tenants to file their paperwork authorizing them to receive their damages checks. So much so that the Tenants Association and local elected officials stepped in to go door to door in ST/PCV in an effort to get tenants to file. This, recalled lead “Roberts” attorney Alex Schmidt, was even after all the “Roberts” tenants received documents in the mail with application forms.
Schmidt declined to comment on Guterman’s letter.

In previous statements directed at tenants, Guterman urged a “gloves off” fight in court against CWCapital in order to renegotiate “Roberts” and the MCI settlement and force a conversion and the end to student housing and apartments with pressurized walls.

When asked about this, an attorney very familiar with “Roberts,” Leonard Grunstein, said he thought that a court agreeing to re-consider the case was highly unlikely. After Stuy Town was put up for sale by Met Life, Grunstein was hired by the Tenants Association to help with a tenant-led bid. It was then that he discovered that landlords benefiting from J-51 tax abatements could not deregulate apartments, which is what ultimately led to the “Roberts” lawsuit.
“I don’t think that can change,” said Grunstein. “Anything is possible, but it doesn’t sound realistic. You would have to prove that they are overcharging new tenants.”

Another attorney, Jeffrey Turkel, who represents owners and groups representing the real estate industry, told Town & Village that generally, courts don’t like to overturn cases.
Turkel, along with a partner at his firm, Rosenberg & Estis, represented the Rent Stabilization Association, an owners’ organization, in “Roberts” when the RSA submitted an amicus brief, or document in support of Tishman Speyer.
Although he didn’t want to comment on “Roberts” specifically, Turkel said, “If someone wanted to undo or overturn a stipulation, they would have to establish fraud or mistakes or overreaching or something like that. Once a stipulation of a settlement is signed by two parties it is binding. What courts don’t like is for people to sign a stipulation and then come back and say, ‘We didn’t mean it.’ That’s basic, settled New York law. Otherwise, you’d have chaos.”

The Tenants Association, meanwhile, responded to the letter by defending its own conversion plan and partnership with Brookfield Asset Management.
“Now that our property is in play again, we expect old and new players to surface from time to time,” TA Chair Susan Steinberg said. “We are committed to delivering on our goals of long term affordability and stability for this community, and believe we have the right advisors and partners to accomplish that goal.”