Civil Court Administrative Judge Anthony Cannataro dismissed dozens of cases in Staten Island's housing court in which landlord-side lawyer Nichole E. Lee is listed as the attorney of record. The reason for dismissal was given as failure to comply with notice requirements laid out in a pandemic-related court order issued in November.
A notice issued in a New York state court order in November (top), to be sent to tenants sued for eviction. The form on the bottom was attached to numerous eviction petitions filed in Staten Island's housing court. (Click images for larger view)
A review of publicly available court records showed that in at least 35 of the 40 cases dismissed, Lee filed a petition with tenant notices attached that refer to the "Chinese Wuhan Virus Emergency" in English and Spanish.
Asian American civil rights groups have condemned such references to the coronavirus pandemic as derogatory and dangerous.
Teresa DeFonso, attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society's Staten Island Neighborhood Office, told Law360 on Friday that she found the notices "incredibly offensive." After a colleague notified her of the issue, DeFonso said she contacted Supervising Housing Court Judge Jean T. Schneider on Wednesday.
"I asked the court to have these cases dismissed, and I want to give the court a ton of credit," DeFonso said. "They reacted very swiftly. I think they took absolutely the right action."
Reached by phone Friday, Lee declined to comment on the specifics of the case dismissals but expressed her frustration with ongoing pandemic-related eviction protections more broadly.
"I'm just waiting for them to pass universal rent control where they completely take away landlords' rights to do what they want with private property," she said.
As part of the November court order at issue, new eviction petitions sent to tenants must include a brightly colored flyer stating that the tenant may be able to raise pandemic-specific defenses in court and should contact a lawyer.
"Petitions in eviction proceedings … shall include a notice to respondent tenant … printed on colored paper to enhance its distinctiveness and effectiveness," the order said.
Office of Court Administration spokesperson Lucian Chalfen told Law360 on Friday that the flyer alterations have "been recently brought to our attention and we are investigating it."
"An official government form was altered and submitted as an official document," he added. "We are looking into the circumstances."
A state law in effect through Aug. 31 provides that most tenants who have experienced pandemic-related hardship can fill out a declaration form to pause or prevent an eviction case from proceeding against them.
--Editing by Jill Coffey.
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