Indian American attorney Jenifer Rajkumar at the center of a $100 million lawsuit in New York

Controversies swirl around the lawsuit.

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: Democratic District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar, a New York City attorney at the Sanford Heisler firm, is at the center of a $100 million lawsuit regarding the living conditions at the city’s Gateway Plaza apartment complex, which has allegedly provided sub-par care for their residential units while charging exorbitant fees for rent and utilities.

Jenifer Rajkumar (courtesy of her official Facebook page)
Jenifer Rajkumar (courtesy of her official Facebook page)

According to Downtown Express, the suit was filed by Sanford Heisler, and tenant Maureen Koetz, who was formerly the vice-president of the complex’s tenant association. Rajkumar, 30, also currently resides at the Gateway Plaza, which has 1,700 units spread among six buildings.

The suit alleges that the building’s management has repeatedly ignored complaints regarding lack of heating, the rising costs of rent and utilities, especially electricity, and has been either late or completely disregarded requests for repairs. The suit also demands that the LeFrak Organization, which manages the building complex, fix defective equipment immediately.

The suit is seeking $100 million in overpaid rent and utilities bills on behalf of all the Gateway Plaza tenants, but the tenants association itself has reportedly chose not to be a part of the litigation. Speaking with Downtown Express, the association’s president, Glenn Plaskin, said that they will continue to negotiate with the building’s management rather than take them to court, and also stressed that around 5,000 of the complex’s residents were not involved in any way with the suit.

Currently, there is already an ongoing battle with the LeFrak Organization and the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), who are taking on the tenants association and three local politicians: City Councilmember Margaret Chin, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and State Senator Daniel Squadron. Rajkumar and Chin already have a history, as the two ran against each other last year for the seat Chin currently occupies; Chin beat Rajkumar by 17 points.

However, the already complicated proceedings have another issue, as accusations have emerged which claim that Rajkumar, who filed the suit on behalf of her firm, plagiarized the lawsuit from drafts written by two other legal firms: Morgan & Morgan and Newman Ferrara.

Downtown Express reports that Rajkumar initially received a call from Morgan & Morgan, in which the firm asked her if she wanted to attach herself to the suit as a plaintiff, not as an attorney. After several conversations, Rajkumar said she wanted to become a plaintiff, at which point a draft of the lawsuit was sent to her. Rajkumar then, allegedly, said she wanted to become a co-counsel, which was followed by several weeks of back-and-forth negotiations between Sanford Heisler and the two other firms.

Then, without warning, Rajkumar filed the lawsuit on behalf of her own firm, and featured herself as the primary counsel for the plaintiffs. This allegedly was a complete surprise to the other two firms, as they were reportedly still waiting to hear back from Rajkumar regarding become co-counsel. Since the accusations of her plagiarism have surfaced, Rajkumar has apparently gone off-the-grid, refusing to speak to media.

Born and raised in New York, Rajkumar is a civil rights attorney with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford Law School. She was elected as the Democratic District Leader for Lower Manhattan, a position she still holds, has been named as a “Rising Star: 40 Under 40” by City & State, and was awarded the 2012 “Young Woman of Achievement Award” by the Women’s Information Network (WIN).

UPDATE 4/9/13: Morgan & Morgan, Newman Ferrara, and Sanford Heisler announced today that they have reached an agreement to team up on the lawsuit, meaning that the class-action suit against the Gateway Plaza apartment complex will be represented by all three firms.

“There is strength in numbers,” the firms announced, in a press release shared with The American Bazaar. “By working together, we will achieve the best results for the class members who have been suffering for years in their units, particularly in the winter months without adequate heat and exorbitant utility costs in both summer and winter.  This winter, of course, has taken a particularly brutal toll.  With this powerhouse legal team, we will make sure that history does not repeat itself.”

UPDATE 4/10/13: Morgan & Morgan and Newman Ferrara have also withdrawn all allegations of any impropriety filed in New York Supreme Court against Rajkumar and her firm, Sanford Heisler, now that all parties have joined together to fight this lawsuit.

“We stand united, with one goal only–  to help the tenants of Gateway Plaza. Together, we are confident we will prevail,” said a statement, issued jointly by all three law firms.

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