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WEST PALM BEACH, FL-In a class action suit involving more than 14,000 Florida apartment renters, State Circuit Judge Susan R. Lubitz ruled that Chicago-based Equity Residential Properties unlawfully penalized renters for terminating leases or failing to provide renewal notices. Meanwhile, without passing judgment on the merits of the complaints, Palm Beach Circuit Judge Jonathan Gerber granted class certification allowing more than 6,000 former tenants to proceed with a suit involving similar allegations against Boca Raton-based Gables Residential Trust.

In the Equity ruling, Lubitz ordered the landlord to remove more than $15 million in charges from the credit reports of thousands of former tenants and to set aside $1.6 million to compensate former tenants who paid the fees, now deemed unlawful, rather than allow the charges to be reported to credit bureaus. In addition, she enjoined Equity from continuing to charge such fees.

In a statement, an Equity spokesman says, “We are disappointed in the court’s ruling and will appeal it, if necessary, as we have the order certifying the class [action suit].”

Chief among the plaintiffs’ allegations are that Equity charged tenants three months’ rent for breaking a lease and charged two months’ rent when tenants failed to give 60 days’ notice that they would not renew a year’s lease often even when the apartments were immediately rented to other tenants. They charged that these practices violate the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. In a 20-page ruling, the judge agreed, “Equity charged unlawful fees.”

Locally based lawyer Rod Tennyson and Ted Babbitt of Babbitt Johnson Osborne & LeClainche, a firm specializing in personal injury suits, also based here, are representing the plaintiffs in both the Equity and Gables cases. No date is set for the newly certified class action suit against Gables.

Calls to Gables were referred to Matthew Nelles of the Ruden, McClosky law firm in Fort Lauderdale. Nelles tells GlobeSt.com “we believe there are numerous factual differences between the charges against Equity and the Gables allegations. We believe Gables at all times acted properly and lawfully and will prevail in this matter. In granting class certification, the judge specifically stated that he was not passing judgment on the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims.”

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