From the April issue: When a New York real estate deal goes south or a partnership sours, chances are good that someone is going to court. And if the stakes are high enough, there’s a strong likelihood that the case will end up in the Commercial Division of the New York Supreme Court in Manhattan.
Indeed, the judges that rule in these parts have some serious decision-making power when it comes to big-ticket New York City real estate cases.
But while litigious real estate players fill out much of their dockets, commercial judges hear an impressively wide range of cases (recent suits include big-box retailers fighting over Martha Stewart-brand bath towels and the pop star Kesha seeking to cut ties with hit record producer Dr. Luke).
The division, which is housed at 60 Centre Street, less than a mile from Wall Street, is where spats over billions of dollars in securities were first heard when markets crashed during the Great Recession.
“They have a tremendous caseload,” said defense attorney Stuart Slotnick, who referred to the Commercial Division as the “crown jewel” of The Supreme Court system. “They frequently have what we call ‘bet the farm’ cases — high-dollar cases.”
To be eligible for the commercial division, a suit must carry a price tag of at least $500,000 — a number that’s gone up considerably over the years. Because of the dollar threshold, as well as the experience these judges have with high-stakes cases, many litigants check off the “commercial” box when filing a big-time real estate lawsuit. (The court ultimately decides where cases are heard.)
“Our real estate cases almost exclusively start at, or are housed within, the Commercial Division,” said attorney Lori Marks-Esterman of Olshan Frome Wolosky. “The commercial division judges are very familiar with real estate disputes and the players and the practicalities that go with New York State real estate litigation, as well as the implications.”
In New York, Supreme Court judges are usually elected in partisan elections — though some are assigned as “acting” judges. Of the nine on the bench, most have at some point been affiliated with the Democratic Party.
Herrick Feinstein real estate litigator Ray Hannigan said the Commercial Division is a huge asset in a sophisticated market like New York, where real estate disputes can be particularly complex.
“Thank the lord for the Commercial Division,” he said. “It’s very nice that you’re able to go into a part where the judges have tremendous experience in dealing with complex agreements and complex issues and don’t need a lot of time to get up to speed because they’ve seen it all before.”
Not surprisingly, real estate attorneys who regularly appear before these judges have strong opinions of them — and seem to revel in exchanging intel. And they do so in force on the Robing Room, a website that lets lawyers anonymously rate judges and post reviews of them.
While some judges are known for being meticulous or pushing cases toward settlement, others are said to ignore case papers or mete out biased treatment.
This month, The Real Deal profiled six of the nine judges on The Supreme Court’s Commercial Division bench — focusing on those who have overseen some of the city’s biggest real estate cases in the last few years. Read on for the first profile.
Judge Jeffrey Oing
Justice Oing reportedly grew up playing on the courthouse steps as kid, attending Sunday school in nearby Chinatown.
First elected to The Supreme Court bench in 2010, Oing has heard a large number of notable real estate cases. Highlights include a suit filed by entrepreneur Avi Dorfman against Urban Compass (now known as Compass) over the firm’s alleged theft of trade secrets, a family feud between the principals of Sitt Asset Management and a falling out between Kuafu Properties and partners — disgraced developer Sean Ludwick’s Blackhouse Development and Siras Development — on the hotel-and-condo project known as Hudson Rise on the Far West Side.
Oing — who joined the Commercial Division in 2011 — has a reputation as not just thorough and hardworking but also for keeping it lighthearted on the bench.
“He’s like a law geek, and I say that with immense respect,” said attorney Janice Mac Avoy, who heads Fried Frank’s real estate litigation practice and has represented firms such as Boston Properties and Lehman Brothers.
For his part, Oing told TRD that he “loves oral argument” and that he “drives a hard case.”
“It gives the lawyers a chance to show what they’ve got,” said Oing, who when reached by phone began enthusiastically recounting his most recent decision. “If the lawyers are really good, I’ve been persuaded to go the other way.”
Mac Avoy said Oing thrives on the banter with counsel and can often be spotted smiling during proceedings.
“It’s actually fun watching him,” she said. “If there were a courtroom scene on TV, it would be in Judge Oing’s courtroom.”
Real estate attorney Adam Leitman Bailey has similar impressions of Oing, calling him a “terrific judge” and a “great listener” as well as a “very good writer.”
But Oing has shown that he’s willing to break with his affable reputation.
In a 2014 decision on a case between department store giants Macy’s and JCPenney, Oing said that JCPenney’s CEO Ron Johnson had displayed “sophomoric” and “childish behavior” in attempting to strike a special agreement with Martha Stewart to sell branded products that were already licensed to Macy’s.
Oing said Johnson was a “casualty of his own hubris,” adding that on Johnson’s watch, executives at the department store had participated in “adolescent hijinks in the worst form.” It would seem that Oing is as much a lover of descriptive language as he is of law.