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Housing Court judges soften stances on using 141 Livingston St. and no-defaults policy

NYC Civil Court Judge says CDC eviction moratorium doesn't change plans in New York

September 4, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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The Kings County Housing Court at 141 Livingston St. is being prepared to host in-person proceedings soon and defaults are on the table for people who repeatedly fail to show, according to court’s administrative and supervising judges who spoke to the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association on Thursday.

When administrative judges met with the bar association in May, they said that there would be no defaults at all and that they were going to try to avoid returning to in-person hearings at the cramped Brooklyn Housing Court until the pandemic is over.

“Unless we get really really good at virtualizing all of our processes, I am not in a position to make any representation regarding 141 Livingston St. other than to say I understand exactly how many of you feel about that space and I fully understand what the engineering slash epidemiological issues are in that space,” said Justice Anthony Cannataro, the citywide administrative judge for the Civil Courts.

Justice Anthony Cannataro, the citywide administrative judge of the Civil Courts.

“I am working as hard as I can to figure out alternatives or appropriate remediations so that more people can feel more comfortable if we ever have to go back in there in a serious or meaningful way.”

When Justice Cannataro was asked about the no-defaults policy for people who fail to show up to court, he deferred to Justice Jean Schneider, the supervising judge for the NYC Housing Court, who said that while they will do everything they can to avoid handing out a default, that it is a possibility.

“Our intention with these motions is to get everybody in and to get counsel in place on every case and then to move those cases to the resolution parts so they can be decided,” Justice Schneider said. “I’m not going to say there is no circumstance, you know, six court appearances down the line in which we might decide then and there that we are going to cross over, but at the moment we are not looking for defaults in those cases. Not at all.”

Justice Jean Schneider, the supervising judge for the NYC Housing Court.

The meeting was set up by the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association and its president Michael Rosenthal along with Lauren Price, an attorney from Brooklyn Defender Services who also runs the Brooklyn Tenant Lawyer Network. The meeting gave attorneys who represent both landlords and tenants an opportunity to speak with Justice Cannataro as well as Justice Schneider and Hon. Cheryl Gonzales, the supervising judge of the Kings County Housing Court.

Justice Cannataro, who has met with local bar associations in each borough throughout the pandemic, opened the meeting by reiterating the Office of Court Administration’s position that it will not extend its own administrative order to suspend evictions past Oct. 1st and said that either the state Legislature or Gov. Andrew Cuomo will have to extend any eviction moratoriums if they decide it necessary.

Hon. Cheryl Gonzales, the supervising judge of the Kings County Housing Court.

Justice Cannataro then switched to another topic on everyone’s mind — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recently announced federal eviction moratorium.

Unfortunately for New York tenants seeking relief under the federal moratorium, Justice Cannataro said that he doesn’t expect the CDC’s announcement will significantly alter any of the court’s previous plans.

“At this moment, even though we haven’t reviewed it fully or discussed it as much as we wanted to, I’ve spoken to [Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks] about it and other people at OCA and there is no present plan to change any of the procedures that we have in place including the DRP-213 motions and the Oct 1st date at this time,” Cannataro said. “Obviously, if a stay of execution has to be issued until Dec. 31st that may well be the case, but at this moment there are no massive changes to the policy I’ve articulated on the horizon.”

Lauren Price, a Brooklyn Defender Services attorney and head of the Brooklyn Tenant Lawyers Network.

The Housing Court has been calendaring future cases to be heard inside the Supreme Court, located at 320 Jay St., because the building has bigger courtrooms. However, Judge Gonzales said that there are currently emergency hearings going on at 141 Livingston St. and that in some cases people and their attorneys are appearing in person if they choose to. The court is also accepting physical filings in its lobby.

Cannataro said that the court will try to host as much as possible virtually, but he said that some people want to have trials and hearings in person. He did suggest that in some instances the court is considering ordering virtual trials rather than letting people request them.

“Obviously, in a place like Brooklyn where we simply cannot afford to unnecessarily burden the facilities with in-person operations that don’t have to be in person, the idea of ordering parties to go to virtual trials is very attractive, I’ll say that,” Cannataro said.

Michael Rosenthal, president of the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association.

When asked if the Office of Court Administration was considering issuing guidelines for how virtual trials should be held, Justice Cannataro explained that it didn’t want to issue such plans as they would not be appealable in court. Instead, OCA would prefer to leave those decisions up to individual judges so that the Appellate Division and Court of Appeals can weigh in on issues that arise.

“An instrument like OCA excels at doing one-size-fits-all solutions and is not particularly well-suited to creating a set of protocols for virtual trials that would apply to each and every court,” Justice Cannataro said. “From my perspective, there is no universally correct answer to any of this stuff. You may have a strongly held feeling of whether a virtual trial comports with your notion of what due process is, but that’s certainly not the final word on that. Ultimately, due process is what the courts and the judges who make up the courts say it is.”

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