NYC Marshals Carry Out First Evictions Since Pandemic Onset

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (November 25, 2020, 1:11 PM EST) -- New York City marshals have begun executing the very first legal residential evictions since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered courts across the state in March, city officials confirmed to Law360, with one Brooklyn family evicted this week.

The New York City Department of Investigation, which includes the Bureau of City Marshals, confirmed Tuesday that it is currently aware of two residential evictions executed in the city since Nov. 20 after the state's court system toppled some of the final barriers to residential evictions last month.

Details of one of the cases were available on the Citywide Performance Reporting database, where marshals are required to submit executed warrants of eviction.

The Nov. 24 eviction took place on Ninth Street in Gowanus, Brooklyn, court records show. Initially filed in November 2017, the so-called nuisance holdover case alleged that tenant Silvina Bravo had damaged the apartment, including the floors, and had run extension cords to an empty apartment for electricity.

An initial December 2019 vacate order was pushed back multiple times by the court.

"Respondent's eviction was imminent in March 2020 when COVID hit, shutting down the city and the ability to execute on the warrant of eviction," attorney Meryl Wenig of Wenig & Saltiel LLP, counsel for landlord Equity Associates PRD LLC, wrote in an August filing to the court, noting that Bravo also owed nearly $16,000 in rent through August. 

Reached by phone, Wenig said the apartment was already empty when the marshal arrived yesterday.

"I understand COVID-19, believe me," she said. "And I get that it is a big issue. But it's got to be applied [as a defense] reasonably." In this case, "what does COVID-19 have to do with it when you were initially supposed to vacate in December?"

Yet the tenant did try to raise a pandemic-related defense, court records show. Bravo is represented by Daniel Rosenstock of RiseBoro Community Partnership, who declined to comment Wednesday.

In a Sept. 2 filing to the court, Rosenstock argued that Bravo, who also lived with her elderly father, daughter, and 1-year-old grandchild, had been negatively impacted by COVID-19.

"As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the respondent Silvina Bravo has suffered a financial hardship, the result of drastically reduced work hours, and a significant reduction in income," the filing states. "This reduction in income has affected her financially, including her ability to secure her and all of her family members somewhere to relocate to, after having called the subject apartment home for over 20 years."

The court was not persuaded. Granting the eviction in an Oct. 16 order, Judge Jeannine Kuzniewski said that while "the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an unspeakable toll on society," there has been "no valid defense offered" for payments of roughly $2,330 Bravo owed before the pandemic.

Nor does she "offer any proof that her hours have been reduced and that it has caused her financial hardship," the judge said.

Tenant attorneys balked at the eviction at a time when COVID-19 cases are on the rise in New York.

"Without a comprehensive eviction moratorium, tenants are now being put out onto the streets, in the middle of a pandemic and heading into the winter," said Marika Dias, attorney and director of the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City. "This is simply cruel."

"The fact that a tenant who has a lawyer was evicted days before Thanksgiving during a surge in COVID-19 cases shows the deep flaws in our system," added Patrick Tyrrell, a senior staff attorney at Mobilization for Justice.

"We think the court process is necessary in a functioning democratic society to resolve disputes," countered Joseph Condon, general counsel for the Community Housing Improvement Program, a landlord trade group, noting that this particular case was vetted from a COVID-19 perspective. 

Another residential eviction took place on Nov. 20, according to the Department of Investigation, though details on the case had not been entered into the city's reporting system as of Wednesday morning.

"The [system] updates whenever the marshal puts the data in the system," DOI spokesperson Diane Struzzi told Law360. "So the data on ... last Friday's evictions may not be in the system until sometime this week or next."

"DOI is not the repository of all evictions immediately after they happen," she added. "That information rests with the individual marshals who execute warrants of eviction."

This month's evictions come despite a patchwork of protections instituted at the state and federal level intended to keep renters in their homes during the pandemic, particularly if they have lost work or income.

A partial eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remains in place through December, and protections instituted by the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are intended to prevent evictions for unpaid rent, so long as a tenant can prove to the court they have experienced financial hardship.

Tenant advocates are continuing to push for a state-level bill from Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Flatbush, that would prohibit evictions, new case filings and money judgments for a full year after the state lifts its final pandemic-related restrictions.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from a landlord trade group. 

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