Policy Swap Bungles Tool For NYC Renters Suing For Repairs

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (June 4, 2021, 3:33 PM EDT) -- New York City courts have reinstated pre-pandemic policies that are upending a website that thousands of unrepresented tenants have used to sue for apartment repairs since the coronavirus forced matters online, according to the nonprofit that developed the site.

The portal, developed by JustFix.nyc in collaboration with the courts, launched in April 2020 to help tenants sue their landlords to resolve issues like gas outages, mold and rat infestations while the courts were closed due to the pandemic. The site met an urgent need, as tenants without lawyers usually file these cases in person.

To smooth the transition to a virtual platform, according to JustFix, the court waived a requirement that tenants either submit a $45 fee or complete a form called an application for poor person's relief. The court also waived a rule that tenants get their paperwork notarized, another step often completed at the courthouse.

But recent application rejections suggest that an abrupt return to the original policies could undermine JustFix, which cannot currently notarize documents or accept payments, and create logistical hurdles for cash-strapped tenants.

"Based on our communications with the court regarding recent changes to how clerks will process HP actions, we believe the JustFix HP tool will be rendered inoperable," JustFix Executive Director Georges Clement said in a statement to Law360.

In order to start a repair action, also known as an HP action, using the JustFix tool, tenants answer a series of questions, and the tool generates the papers and submits them directly to the court. If the case is accepted, the tenant must serve their landlord and will eventually have a remote hearing. Some tenants are also matched with a free lawyer.

JustFix says it has processed more than 3,040 cases since the portal's launch.

In one early indication of trouble, the nonprofit received a notice from the housing court in Queens on Thursday that a tenant must get their petition notarized, and either pay the $45 fee or submit a notarized affidavit stating that they cannot afford it.

A similar notice arrived Friday from Manhattan housing court. "Please be advised that in order to process this application, a notarized affidavit in support of a poor persons application must be included," the notice said. The "petition in this matter must also be notarized."

Stephanie Brown, a renter in Queens, told Law360 that she filed a petition through the JustFix portal on Wednesday and that a staffer called Friday and explained that she would need to fill out additional paperwork. 

They "sent [a form] to my brother-in-law, and he's going to print it from his office and bring it to me today," Brown said.

Courts spokesperson Lucian Chalfen told Law360 on Thursday that the reinstatement of the filing fee requirement coincided with the return of judges and court staff to courthouses in late May. 

"Recently, with the return of judges and other court staff to their courthouses, housing court has resumed its long-standing practice of having judges review applications for poor person relief," Chalfen said. The court has not done public messaging about the change, he confirmed. 

Tenants who need help filing can go to a help center at each borough housing court "at any time during regular business hours," Chalfen said, though people who need to pay a filing fee at the court cashier's window "are strongly encouraged to call in advance to make an appointment to see the cashier."

Chalfen also said that the court "has invited JustFix NYC to develop a system that allows for payment of court filing fees by remote filers."

JustFix deputy director Steph Rudolph said that their team had little notice of the change and that any new tool would take time and resources to develop. Such a tool would also require permissions from the court that the nonprofit does not have yet, they added.

Legal Aid Society supervising attorney Jessica Bellinder told Law360 Friday that the courts should not be backtracking on pandemic adjustments that simplified court processes.

"We have a lot of people in New York City who for a lot of reasons have an inability to get to housing court in an easy way either because of a disability or incredibly busy work schedules," Bellinder said.

"I think those barriers existed pre-COVID, and to the extent we are working out ways to make the courts accessible to people who had barriers pre-COVID, we need to keep those adaptations," she said. "We need to make it more accessible, not less."

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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