Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 49
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
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Princeton Landlord Faces Charges of Racketeering, Consumer Fraud

Matthew Hersh

A Princeton area landlord and Township resident is being charged after accusations that he offered false information to tenants regarding their housing. He is also being charged with racketeering and consumer fraud.

The landlord, Sandford Zeitler, whose holdings include property in Princeton Borough, Princeton Township, and Franklin Township, is now facing a case filed in state Superior Court in Mercer County that, while centering around one plaintiff, represents a pattern of landlord-tenant behavior over the course of several years and involved numerous tenants, according to the plaintiff’s lawyers.

That pattern is what led to the 13-count complaint against Mr. Zeitler and stakeholders of his company, Birch Realty. It is also alleged that the landlord violated the New Jersey Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), according to the plaintiff’s attorney, Borough Councilman Roger Martindell.

At a news conference Monday, Mr. Martindell, and his client, Alicia Barrita, explained that Mr. Zeitler’s alleged withholding of the security deposit upon termination of her landlord-tenant relationship, as well as his renting out a space not qualifying as a residential unit, was not unique to her, but had been the experience of other tenants of Mr. Zeitler’s as well.

Ms. Barrita, 40, said that Mr. Zeitler solicited her in 2005 to rent a former property of his at the corner of Raymond Road and Route 27 in Franklin Township for the use of a retail food distribution business that she was looking to launch. Ms. Barrita said that she was referred to two of Mr. Zeitler’s business partners to begin, at her expense, renovations of the building that would have served as both her business and residence.

When Ms. Barrita was evicted by Franklin Township authorities in July 2005, it was because the property was zoned strictly commercial — not commercial and residential as was understood by Ms. Barrita, who said she had invested more than $20,000 of her own savings in the renovations. The plaintiff also alleges that the property was, in fact, legally uninhabitable, because no certificate of occupancy had been permitted.

The suit was first filed in July 2007, but Mr. Martindell said he is bringing the case to light now because he hoped that more of Mr. Zeitler’s tenants would come forward. “Frankly, we wanted the opportunity to discover other persons who have suffered the same consequences, and we have good reason to believe that there are quite a few people out there,” Mr. Martindell said.

Ms. Barrita, a Mexican immigrant, said her dream was “robbed” after her alleged ordeal with Mr. Zeitler.

George Dougherty, attorney for Mr. Zeitler, said the case is still in the discovery phase, and that Mr. Zeitler would ultimately prevail. “This case has allegations that are just Chicken Little, ‘the sky is falling’-type allegations, and some of its claims are just wrong and ill considered,” Mr. Dougherty said.

Ms. Barrita’s complaint names 12 other Latinos, Mr. Martindell said, “who suffered the same fate over a period of years.” The suit seeks three times the amount of Ms. Barrita’s renovations, as well as her security deposit, attorney’s fees, punitive damages, and a court order requiring Mr. Zeitler to divest himself of his rental properties, Mr. Martindell said.

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