Evictions in limbo after judge’s messy memo

Guidance calls Housing Court reopening into question

New York /
Jun.June 18, 2020 06:25 PM
Judge Lawrence Marks (Getty)

Judge Lawrence Marks (Getty)

Mass confusion in the legal community arose after New York’s top administrative judge issued a bewildering memo which halts all eviction proceedings until further notice — or not, depending on your interpretation.

The late-afternoon directive from Judge Lawrence Marks laid out the steps for filing new evictions by mail or via an electronic system which is not yet operational. It provided a boilerplate notice to be given to tenants, pointing them to a website that, at press time, returned a “file not found” error.

While the judge cited Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest eviction order, which narrows the original one and extends it to Aug. 20, in the next sentence he said his previous blanket eviction moratorium would remain in place “for the time being.” Legal practitioners were stumped.

One real estate attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity described it as “total confusion,” and added that everything is “in limbo.”

Attorneys widely expected the guidance for the implementation of the governor’s latest executive order, which allows certain evictions to proceed. The memo instead prompted more head-scratching.

In response to questions about whether evictions could proceed Monday, and whether the governor and the courts are on the same page, a court spokesperson offered only that it “depends on what the governor does.” The governor’s office did not return a request for comment.

“I am thoroughly confused,” said Nativ Winiarsky, a partner at Kucker Marino Winiarsky and Bittens, before scheduling an emergency call with that firm’s attorneys.

“Suffice it to say, and I don’t say this lightly, the New York City Housing Court has essentially ceased to function and to the extent landlords are looking for any relief, they need to explore their options in Civil Court (in the non-housing part) or Supreme Court,” Winiarsky later wrote.

According to the memo, only evictions filed on or before March 16 can proceed, virtually. Attorney Adam Leitman Bailey, who said the memo “should have been a first draft,” said it’s not clear if new cases can be filed in Housing Court.

“This is like saying, ‘welcome to Housing Court, now please leave — and here’s the judge’s order to explain why you can’t do any business here,’” Bailey said. “If this isn’t cleared up, we’re going to be filing our Housing Court cases in the state Supreme Court.”

Once the document hit a tenant attorney listserv, where more than a thousand attorneys tried to decipher it, panic ensued, said Patrick Tyrrell, an attorney with Mobilization for Justice.

“It’s like playing telephone with a thousand people, and everyone has a different version of this thing,” said Tyrrell.

Legal Aid staff attorney Ellen Davidson said she believes the administrative order banning all evictions is still in effect, until further notice. She, like the others, was frustrated with the lack of clarity.

“Part of the work I do is try to break down complicated concepts to people who aren’t lawyers,” Davidson said. “I wish some of these executive and administrative orders were written with the goal of letting people understand what they mean.”


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