Element Tampa tenants sue over July flooding at apartment tower

Residents said management failed to address their concerns and provide a habitable living space after a water line broke last summer.
Work and inspections continued at the Element, 808 N Franklin Street, in July. Apartments, hallways and stairwells became flooded in the 460-foot tall residential skyscraper in downtown Tampa after multiple water main breaks. Now, some residents are suing.
Work and inspections continued at the Element, 808 N Franklin Street, in July. Apartments, hallways and stairwells became flooded in the 460-foot tall residential skyscraper in downtown Tampa after multiple water main breaks. Now, some residents are suing. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 7, 2022|Updated Feb. 7, 2022

TAMPA — Former and current Element tenants are suing the building’s owner and one of its managers after they said the Tampa apartment tower failed to address previous water pipe issues, fulfill the conditions of tenants’ leases and repair the building in a timely manner after it flooded last summer.

Lee Segal of Segal & Schuh Law Group, P.L., and Adam Itzkowitz of Itzkowitz Law, PLLC, are working together to represent roughly 40 tenants. The attorneys have jointly filed six lawsuits to date, with the latest litigation filed Jan. 20.

The tenants are suing Northland Element LLC, which is listed as the owner of the downtown Tampa high-rise on the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Office’s website.

T.J. Winick, a spokesperson for Northland, said the company does not comment on pending litigation. The building’s general manager, Debbie Fernandez, also was named as a defendant in the lawsuit. She could not be reached for comment at Element.

Each of the six tenants that has filed suit so far is seeking damages in excess of $30,000 for ruined personal property and personal injuries they said they suffered as a result of the flooding, as well the costs of their lawsuits and a series of other expenses and inconveniences they said they experienced.

The building’s 500 residents were evacuated from the 35-story building’s 395 units on July 16 after the main municipal water supply line broke, and breaches on the 12th and 27th floors allowed water to pour through the Element’s vents, light fixtures, hallways and stairwells. Northland paid for hotel rooms for residents until they were allowed back into the high-rise 10 days later.

The lawsuits claim that Element management should have been aware of water pipe issues in the building after a pipe burst in January 2021. While residents did not need to be evacuated following the January incident, units on the second through the 34th floors were without water for at least two days, and residents living on the 25th through the 34th floors remained without water for a few additional days, according to Department of Business and Professional Regulation inspections filed as exhibits with the lawsuits.

The lawsuits also allege that “since July 26, 2021, some residents have reported coughing and seeing black walls, and thus have reason to believe that Defendants may have covered up the mold.” They also continued to charge the same amount in rent, despite reduced amenities and a lower quality of living in the building, the lawsuits allege. Furthermore, management did not repair the elevators in a timely manner, the tenants said.

While most of the lawsuits’ claims were identical, some tenants brought forward claims specific to their individual cases.

Tenant Kelly DeCarlucci said in her lawsuit that when she heard the building’s fire alarms following the flooding in July, she feared for her life, not knowing what had happened. Her attorneys allege she was forced to go down more than 20 flights of stairs, even though she had “severe physical handicaps and disabilities,” including fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure and anxiety, which she used medications to manage. Excessive physical exertion and stressful situations caused flare-ups of pain and swelling in her joints and muscles, the lawsuit said.

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Later, DeCarlucci asked that her daughter be allowed into the building to retrieve DeCarlucci’s medications and clothing, according to the lawsuit. However, the lawsuit alleges, manager Debbie Fernandez did not allow DeCarlucci’s daughter to enter the building, and DeCarlucci once again had to use the stairs. According to the lawsuit, other people in the stairwell helped DeCarlucci carry her luggage down the stairs after noticing her struggling with it.

DeCarlucci declined to speak to the Times about the lawsuit.

Two tenants who moved out of the apartments shortly after the flooding said in lawsuits that Element has sent debt collectors after them, claiming they owe money for breaking their leases.

After the flooding last July, management told tenants who lived on the floors most impacted by the flooding that they could terminate their leases, former tenant and plaintiff Farrah Ismaili told the Times. So Ismaili decided to move to a high-rise in St. Petersburg.

However, Ismaili said she soon was hit by debt collectors. According to Ismaili’s lawsuit against Northland, Professional Debt Mediation Inc. began pursuing her for $10,419.21 on behalf of Element, saying she broke her lease. Ismaili said her credit score has been negatively impacted as a result.

“Keeping a 700 and higher score is very important for me,” she told the Times in a phone interview. “Credit is not something I play with.”

Winick was not able to provide information on whether Element offered to let any tenants terminate their leases early.

Former resident Valentin Nemtsev had a similar experience to Ismaili’s. Nemtsev moved into the Element apartment complex in January 2021. But after the building flooded in July, the elevators stopped working consistently and many of the amenities closed, he told the Times. So Nemtsev decided to move out and ultimately relocated to Orlando for a new job.

Then, in October, Professional Debt Mediation Inc. sent Nemtsev a note saying he owed the apartment complex a sum of $7,107.78, he said.

“It’s an ongoing battle,” Nemtsev, who also has filed a lawsuit, said in a phone interview.

Reginald Metu, another tenant represented by Itzkowitz and Segal, said in a lawsuit that he caught COVID-19 after the apartment flooded and residents were sent to hotel rooms.

“Due to testing positive for COVID-19, Plaintiff was forced to isolate from others and miss time from work, in addition to enduring physical complications caused by the virus,” the lawsuit said. Metu could not be reached at phone numbers listed under his name.

Former resident Ruth Godwin decided to move out of Element after her lease ended in October 2021. She is among the group of former and current tenants suing the apartment complex, claiming it failed to maintain the building’s main water line and provide an adequate living space following the flooding last summer.

“Nobody wants to go through this,” Godwin said. “But I also know that they’ve got a poor track record of being honest and forthcoming.”