NY Courts Say State Has 1 Month To Act On Eviction Hold

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (September 1, 2020, 3:09 PM EDT) -- New York's Office of Court Administration said it will not continue to extend a pandemic-related hold on residential evictions, shifting the burden to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature a month before evictions are scheduled to resume on Oct. 1.

Two of New York's top administrative judges have said that the courts will not extend their ongoing eviction hold into October, and are urging the other two branches of government to take a leadership role on the contentious issue, which has pitted an energized tenant movement against aggrieved landlords. 

"Both the Chief Administrative Judge and the Administrative Judge for New York City Civil Court have stated in the past week that policy is the realm of the executive and the legislative, not the judicial branch, of government," courts spokesperson Lucian Chalfen told Law360 in an email Tuesday.

"While this has been an unusual time requiring quick thinking and non-bureaucratic actions, as we slowly return to normal, the role of the judiciary should too," he added.

Gov. Cuomo's blanket eviction moratorium expired on June 20. But the courts effectively extended it through September, declining to execute any warrants before that date.

Their decision to step back comes as residential eviction cases begin to pile up. Landlords filed 5,844 residential eviction cases in New York City between June 20 and Aug. 30, according to a recent analysis of court data by the NYU Furman Center.

This is less than a third of the 20,333 residential eviction cases filed during the same period last year, when courts were functioning normally. But they join 200,000 pending cases that have only gradually begun to move forward since the courts closed in March. 

Judge Anthony Cannataro, New York City's chief civil court administrative judge, spoke out during an August 26 call with housing attorneys from the Bronx, after Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks teased the Oct. 1 deadline in testimony before the state Senate.

"Oct. 1 was not selected as a day that Judge Marks or anyone in the court thinks is appropriate for when evictions should start anywhere in New York," Judge Cannataro said. "Rather, it was an effort to kind of put out there a date that was far enough in the future ... to take our hands off the issue of policy making around evictions."

"We've put that date out there as the date we intend to start unless we hear otherwise from the other branches of government," Judge Cannataro added. "We're more than happy to comply with what the executive and legislative tells us needs to happen, but we don't want to be making policy on those issues going forward. And hopefully we won't have to."

For some landlord attorneys, Judge Cannataro's statements are an admission of months of judicial overreach.

"Court administration should never have been involved in policy making, and I think it sets a precarious precedent that weakens what is supposed to be a very firm separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches," said Nativ Winiarsky of Kucker Marino Winiarsky & Bittens LLP. 

Tenant advocates, meanwhile, have doubled down on their legislative efforts. In a recent letter to state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the Legal Aid Society of New York demanded an emergency session to extend the eviction moratorium. 

"You have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable New Yorkers," wrote Adriene Holder, attorney-in-charge of the civil practice at the Legal Aid Society. "This is not the time for inaction."

The organization urged Stewart-Cousins and Heastie to pass a tenant-backed bill from state 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.

When evictions resume, the courts have indicated that they will seek to resolve pending cases before they tackle matters commenced since the pandemic began. The latter will remain on hold as long as Gov. Cuomo continues to renew an executive order that suspends civil court filing deadlines. 

Among the pending cases are more than 14,000 residential eviction cases in which a warrant was issued prior to the pandemic.

"Currently, in New York City alone, there are over 14,000 households with pending eviction warrants who are in imminent danger of displacement," Marika Dias, managing director of the Urban Justice Center's Safety Net Project, said in a Tuesday statement to Law360.

Without an extended eviction moratorium, Dias predicted, "We are going to see mass displacement, generational trauma and a likely exacerbation of our public health crisis."

Gov. Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Nor did the offices of Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Heastie.

Last month, Cuomo extended a hold on commercial evictions through Sept. 20. 

--Editing by Gemma Horowitz. 

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

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