The apartment company of Jared Kushner violated Maryland’s consumer protection laws numerous times at Baltimore-area properties by collecting debts without the required licenses, charging tenants improper fees, and misrepresenting the condition of rental units, a judge has ruled.
In a 252-page decision issued Thursday, Administrative Law Judge Emily Daneker found that violations by Westminster Management and the company JK2 were “widespread and numerous.”
Kushner — the son-in-law of former president Donald J. Trump — and his brother Joshua each held 50% interest in JK2, according to the legal filing. Westminster is the successor to that company.
Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, in 2019 sued Westminster and the 25 companies that owned apartment communities that it managed, alleging they took advantage of financially vulnerable consumers in Maryland.
While finding many violations of consumer protection laws, Daneker did not agree with all of the allegations of the attorney general’s office’s Consumer Protection Division.
She found the division did not establish that the companies violated the law by misrepresenting their ability to provide maintenance services. She also said they were not committing some violations during the entire period alleged by the division.
The Kushner Cos. characterized the decision as vindicating Westminster, which it owns.
“Kushner respects the thoughtful depth of the Judge’s decision, which vindicates Westminster with respect to many of the Attorney General’s overreaching allegations,” the Kushner Cos’. general counsel, Christopher W. Smith, said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun.
Westminster has repeatedly alleged that Frosh’s case was politically motivated.
In her ruling, Daneker found no evidence of that.
“The evidence does not establish differential treatment or selective enforcement based on any politically motivated basis, as opposed to motivation to protect Maryland consumers,” she wrote.
Frosh’s office did not comment on the ruling, citing the ongoing litigation.
The wide-ranging case dealt with issues from maintenance problems such as mold and rodents, to fees charged to the consumers.
Daneker heard months of testimony, from September to December. Witnesses included government officials and numerous current and former tenants and employees of the apartments in question.
Most of the properties are located in Baltimore County, including the communities of Essex, Halethorpe, Middle River and Randallstown. There are also some in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.
Daneker found Westminster charged illegal fees thousands of times.
Maryland law only allows landlords to charge up to $25 to process an application. But the properties in the case charged between $35 to $50 to at least 15,289 consumers, according to Daneker’s decision.
Westminster and JK2 also charged tenants $12 “agent fees” related to court filings, for costs the companies had not actually incurred. The companies did this more than 28,000 times, with the wrongly charged agent fees totaling more than $332,000, the judge wrote.
In addition, the companies charged tenants at Dutch Village and Pleasantview in Baltimore $80 “as a pass-through fee for court costs, even though the amount incurred was only $50.”
“This occurred a total of 2,642 times over the course of more than two years,” Daneker wrote. “These circumstances do not support a finding that this was the result of isolated or inadvertent mistakes.”
The judge found that tenants were misled frequently about the conditions of the apartments before they moved in. Often, they were only shown model units and weren’t allowed to see their actual apartment until move-in day.
One man described his experience at the Charlesmont apartments in Dundalk in 2014. He was shown a unit that looked like it had just been remodeled, but the unit he got “had dirty carpet and smelled like a litter box.” His kitchen ceiling collapsed the night he moved in. Management never made repairs despite repeated complaints, so the man bought supplies at Home Depot and fixed the ceiling himself. His employer paid for the carpet to be cleaned.
Another woman testified that in 2013, she was shown a nice, newly painted and updated unit at the Carriage Hill apartments in Randallstown. But when she moved in, she found mouse holes in the apartment they gave her. The rodents were an ongoing problem, with the woman finding droppings on her stove and counter, and hearing mice in the walls.
In another finding, Daneker said that Dutch Village and Pleasantview at times lacked the proper city rental licenses. During these periods, the properties were not legally permitted to offer units for rent, or to charge or collect rent.
Both sides have 30 days to file responses to Daneker’s decision.
An official with the Consumer Protection Division will issue a final order, which could address penalties and restitution. Either side could appeal that ruling to state court.
Frosh has previously estimated the damages could total millions of dollars.
Kushner Cos. recently said it would sell about half of its Baltimore-area apartment complexes, including some named in the attorney general’s lawsuit.