A company that operates a townhome community near Fort Drum, New York, will pay about $59,000 spread over more than 125 service members who were allegedly illegally charged fees that violated federal law, according to the New York attorney general's office.
A provision of the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act allows troops and their families to terminate a residential lease early without penalty when the service member deploys, receives orders for a permanent change of station or leaves the military. According to a news release issued by the New York attorney general's office, an investigation found that Woodcliff Community "wrongfully denied early [lease] termination rights in certain circumstances where the soldier should have been protected."
The community is located about a mile from Fort Drum, with about 150 duplex-style townhomes.
The attorney general's office announced a settlement with the company Wednesday.
LeRay 300, the McLean, Virginia-based company that operates Woodcliff Community, neither admitted wrongdoing nor denied the allegations.
"We never intended to engage in any improper manner. We've done our best to do the best job we can for our residents," said Jeff Lewis, former manager of LeRay 300.
In an effort to offset some of the lease startup costs, he said, the company a few years ago charged a lease processing fee of $200 to $300 at the time the tenant signed the lease. That money was refunded on the tenant's 12th month of paying rent.
"The fact that we didn't refund to service members who were deployed or PCSed prior to the 12th month was the problem, according to the attorney general," Lewis said. "Our lease had previously been reviewed by the housing office and legal assistance office at Fort Drum multiple times so we thought everything was fine, but with the attorney general's findings, we readily cooperated and have made all proposed changes."
Lewis declined to comment further, citing restrictions in the settlement agreement.
Under the terms of the agreement, the company will pay $59,000 to 125 service members, change business practices to comply with state law and pay a civil penalty of $10,000 to the state. The attorney general's office also accused the company of false advertising on its website, and required the company to change the wording.
"New York stands beside our service members, and I will do what it takes to defend their rights as they bravely defend ours," New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in the announcement of the settlement.
Senior reporter Karen Jowers writes about military families, quality of life and consumer issues. She can be reached at email@example.com.