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Housing Court Bar Association gains new membership amid reopening confusion

Lawyers prepare for in-person Housing Court appearances Monday

July 23, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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When the court system shut down in the middle of March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it essentially put lawyers who practice in the Housing Court out of work. The system has reopened virtually since then, but with evictions postponed until Aug. 20 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, new cases are only allowed on an essential or emergency basis.

For the first time, the Brooklyn Housing Court will open for in-person appearances on Monday. The Kings County Housing Court Bar Association (KCHCBA) hosted a meeting with members on Wednesday to help answer as many questions about the reopening as possible.

“I’ve recently had meetings where Judge Jean Schneider, Judge Cheryl Gonzales and Judge Anthony Cannataro were in attendance, as well as members of the tenants’ bar association and the landlords’ bar association,” said Michael Rosenthal, president of the KCHCBA. “So we announced our own meeting to go through some of the things that I have picked up in the last few days, and also to help anyone with whatever questions they have.”

More and more people have turned to the KCHCBA in the last few months for information about the reopening. The KCHCBA’s meeting on Wednesday drew a crowd of nearly 150 attorneys. The group’s regular meetings usual draw crowds of up to 20 people.

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Kings County Housing Court Bar Association meetings typically attract 20 to 30 members per month, but with the Housing Court in Brooklyn opening up for in-person appearances on Monday, this month’s meeting drew well over 100 people.

Jeffrey Saltiel, the association’s treasurer, said that not everyone in attendance is a member, but that membership has recently ballooned to its highest in years. A lot of that has to do with the ease of attending a Zoom meeting, but also the confusion surrounding the courts these days.

“We’re doing our best to keep everyone up-to-date by email and by these meetings,” Rosenthal said. “I appreciate so many people joining us. With so many people joining the association this year, we have far more members than we have ever had in the past.”

Rosenthal explained on Wednesday that both landlord attorneys and tenant attorneys are hesitant to make in-person appearances. However, he stressed that court administrators said that the court has a constitutional obligation to reopen.

To help the ease the burden of maintaining social distancing, the Brooklyn Housing Court has, at least temporarily, moved from 141 Livingston St. to the Supreme Court located at 320 Jay St. That doesn’t help people avoid the subway or buses, though.

“One of the concerns raised by the tenants bar was that even if the court does everything to perfection, there are still so many people coming to court by public transportation that just the nature of in-person appearances are not safe,” Rosenthal said.

Jeffrey Saltiel, the treasurer of the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association, has helped the association put together a website in recent months.

The catch-22 is that while nobody wants to return to the courts themselves, attorneys don’t trust virtual trials either. During virtual trials, it is more difficult to ensure that jurors are paying attention and aren’t illegally recording events. Attorneys are also worried about not being able to see who is in the room during depositions, and about the possibility that witnesses could be coached or could be reading statements rather than recalling facts from memory.

“Obviously, it would be ideal to settle and try cases virtually if we feel comfortable with a virtual trial that would get us proper results, but I know many of us are not comfortable with a virtual trial because of the inability to see other people in the room, who are listening, etc.” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal said that the problem is made worse because a recent lawsuit filed against the Criminal Court by several legal aid providers has made court administrators hesitant to talk openly about the issue.

Once the Housing Court reopens on Monday, judges will begin calendaring cases where both sides are represented by attorneys. In cases where one side is self-represented, the court is expected to try to connect that person with a legal services provider to get them an attorney. If that pro se litigant is connected with an attorney, those cases will then be calendared.

“You should not expect any cases filed after June 2 to make a calendar until, at best, early December, late November,” Rosenthal warned. “If you have a case involving a pro se litigant, the court will try to hook pro se’s up with a provider. If not, they will be conferenced after all of the two attorney cases.”

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