Brooklyn To Resume Some Pre-Pandemic Housing Trials

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (July 9, 2020, 12:40 PM EDT) -- Brooklyn housing court will resume some pre-pandemic trials "on or about" July 27, according to a Thursday email from New York Civil Court Administrative Judge Anthony Cannataro that threw tenant attorneys for a loop.

The news came on the heels of — and seemed to conflict with — state guidance extending a hold on eviction proceedings. Three courtrooms have been designated for trials at the Supreme Court building at 320 Jay St. in Downtown Brooklyn, rather than the notoriously cramped housing court at 141 Livingston St.

"In-person trials of pending housing matters will resume in Kings County on or about July 27, 2020," Cannataro wrote Thursday.

"The three courtrooms that have been designated for housing trials are large and well-suited for social distancing and other safety measures," the judge said.

Trials could include nonpayment and holdover cases — such as nuisance claims and lease violations — as well as rent overcharges and alleged tenant harassment. Scheduling notices are expected in the coming days.

Office of Court Administration spokesperson Lucian Chalfen told Law360 the current guidance is only for Kings County, though other boroughs will "follow soon incrementally."

The guidance does not apply to new eviction cases, which remain on pause, according to the court.

"The cases will focus on matters that were put on the trial calendar before March 16, 2020, which have resisted prior efforts at settlement and cannot be resolved using remote technology," Chalfen said.

To the chagrin of tenant attorneys and advocates, some of these cases may include unrepresented litigants, though Chalfen said two-attorney cases will be "preferred."

Landlord attorney Michael Rosenthal, founding partner of Hertz Cherson & Rosenthal PC and president of the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association, said he supports today's announcement.

"It's a big building," he said. "Social distancing will be very possible there. I did speak to an older landlord attorney who said that he is not ready to enter courtrooms yet, so I am not sure what happens when people tell the court they don't feel ready yet, but I think for the most part this is a good thing."

Craig Gambardella, partner with landlord firm Kucker Marino Winiarsky & Bittens LLP, said it is "refreshing" to see pre-pandemic matters taken up.

Addressing the apparent discrepancy between Judge Cannataro's email and guidance from Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks earlier this week, Chalfen seemed to indicate judgments of possession and evictions in these cases could be delayed.

"A favorable finding for a petitioner in such a case does not necessarily mean that judgment of possession will be immediately issued or that a warrant of eviction will be awarded," he said. "Whether and when those things happen depends on a very fluid set of directives from government and court leaders." 

This was cold comfort Thursday for tenant advocates and attorneys.

Marika Dias, managing director of the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center, urged the court to reverse course "immediately."

"NYC housing court's indication that they intend to move forward with eviction trials is dangerous and shows a complete disregard for the lives of tenants, their families and the community at large," she said. "It is also entirely at odds with the directive from New York state's chief administrative judge, which explicitly suspends all eviction cases statewide until further notice."

Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society, expressed outrage.

"The lack of clarity from the courts could result in a new outbreak with desperate tenants searching for information forced to go to unsanitary and dangerous housing courts," Goldiner told Law360. "There is no excuse for this."

--Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

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

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