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Law360 (May 19, 2020, 6:48 PM EDT) -- The New York City Housing Court this week began taking up certain pending eviction cases in order to lighten caseloads ahead of an anticipated surge of cases following the coronavirus pandemic, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks said Tuesday.
Qualifying cases must have commenced before the pandemic and both parties must have counsel, according to Marks' press release. Parties will take part in settlement conferences and judges cannot order evictions as part of this initiative, the court clarified.
Conferences will be conducted virtually as part of ongoing virus precautions.
"The conferences are being scheduled to facilitate settlements and reduce pending caseloads as the court prepares for an influx of new eviction cases on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic," the release stated.
Lucian Chalfen, spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration, said Tuesday any eviction would violate a court order that's been in place since March 22 prohibiting nonemergency proceedings during the pandemic.
"There will be no evictions ordered as a result of this conferencing initiative," Chalfen said. "Settlement agreements cannot include issuance of eviction papers."
Attorneys predicted a range of possible settlements, including the balance of rent a tenant owes, a payment schedule for that rent, and repair schedules.
Settlements reached during this time could speed along eviction proceedings down the road, according to Nativ Winiarsky, a partner with Kucker Marino Winiarsky & Bittens LLP, who represents landlords.
"If the parties already agreed to the amount owed, then once the courts are allowed to issue warrants of eviction, the parties won't have to litigate the issue of arrears which should streamline the process," Winiarsky told Law360 Tuesday.
A judge must "so order" a settlement in order for it to be enforceable.
"I strongly doubt that any judge will 'so order' a stipulation that contains any reference to a judgment of possession and/or issuance of a warrant of eviction," Winiarsky added.
Patrick Tyrrell, a tenant attorney with Mobilization for Justice, said Tuesday that while efforts to address the case backlog are understandable, there should not be a penalty for parties that do not wish to participate in a settlement conference.
According to the OCA, conferences are mandatory so long as one party makes the request.
"I believe that if either party does not want to participate in a settlement conference, there should be absolutely no penalty," Tyrrell told Law360. "Given the daily sweeping changes in the law around COVID-19 and tenants rights, I find it hard to imagine being able to properly advise most of my clients of their settlement options."
There is already strong interest in these virtual eviction case conferences, the court said Tuesday.
"We have just begun to schedule these conferences," Chalfen told Law360. "To say the demand is certainly pent up would be understating the situation. We have gotten more than a [hundred] requests just today."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statewide eviction moratorium in March. This month he issued guidance for new eviction cases effective in late June. The guidance has prompted confusion among attorneys and anger from housing activists.
A coalition of statewide tenant groups launched a rent strike on May 1, demanding rent and mortgage payment waivers for the duration of the pandemic.
Tuesday's announcement marks an "important step forward, as we work, in today's highly challenging environment, to facilitate the resolution of these critical housing court matters and promote a fair process for all litigants," Judge Marks said.
--Editing by Janice Carter Brown.
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