NY Landlords Can File Cases Despite Eviction Moratorium

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (March 18, 2020, 10:30 AM EDT) -- New York landlords can file eviction and nonpayment cases this week despite a statewide eviction moratorium that took effect Tuesday in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the court confirmed, raising concerns about close human contact and tenant anxiety in a health crisis.

New cases in New York City will be adjourned for "about 45 days" on their return date, according to a Tuesday email to attorneys from New York City Housing Court Judge Jean Schneider obtained by Law360.

"Hundreds of new cases were filed today citywide," she added.

This practice must continue until Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspends the statute of limitations statewide for new cases, Office of Court Administration spokesperson Lucian Chalfen confirmed.

Such a move would impact residential and commercial tenants statewide, though only New York City and Buffalo have dedicated housing courts.

The governor's office did not immediately comment.

"The whole point of the eviction moratorium and court shutdown was to minimize unnecessary exposure to COVID-19," said Patrick Tyrrell, a staff attorney for Mobilization for Justice. "Instead ... [this] may cause tenants to panic, get on the subway, and come to court in person for no good reason."

Judge Schneider addressed the predicament in her Tuesday email. "We are accepting the filing of new proceedings and purchase of index numbers, at least until the governor issues an order permitting us to stop," she wrote.

She also stressed the court's position that new cases should not be filed, due to health concerns.

"We urge practitioners to consider not filing any motion that is not absolutely necessary at this time," Judge Schneider wrote. "In the interest of preserving public health, we hope to reduce traffic to our court buildings to a minimum. Any motion filed brings to the court not just the person who files the motion but also the person who receives it."

New York Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks announced Sunday that, in light of the public health emergency, "all eviction proceedings and pending eviction orders shall be suspended statewide until further notice."

Only "essential applications" would proceed as normal, including landlord lockout cases, serious housing code violations, and repair orders.

Default judgments were also suspended, meaning a tenant who fails to appear will not be hit with a judgment.

Housing rights groups celebrated the move on Monday, having collected 15,000 signatures for a petition calling on Cuomo to immediately instate an eviction moratorium, as well as freeze rents across the state.

But the news that cases will continue to be filed brought widespread frustration and confusion.

"This new information from the court shows us just how vulnerable we are when we only rely on judges' orders for protections," said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for the tenants' rights group Housing Justice for All. "As far as I can tell, the Legislature is still in session, and we need the governor and the Legislature to take action now."

Tyrrell, of Mobilization for Justice, is particularly concerned about new nonpayment cases, which by law require tenants to appear in court within 10 days.

This could prove confusing, he said, since tenants might not have heard about the suspension of default judgments.

"Lawyers on both sides understand that tenants who fail to answer a nonpayment petition in time are not currently at risk of getting evicted. But I am not confident that unrepresented tenants know this," Tyrrell said.

"Many of my clients are elderly, disabled or otherwise immunocompromised," he added. "It would be tragic and unjust if they contracted this deadly virus simply because the eviction machine continues to mindlessly churn out new cases."

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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

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