Landlords see chance to advance eviction cases

Memo lets judges resume cases using technology

New York Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Meeks (Credit: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images, iStock)
New York Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks (Credit: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images, iStock)

Attorneys representing landlords are hoping judges will let pending eviction cases go forward, after a court memo released late last week opened the door for virtual proceedings.

On the heels of Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s announcement of New York’s “transformation to a virtual court system,” Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks laid out the guidelines for implementation. Pending cases may proceed exclusively via Skype for Business, according to the memo, “where appropriate,” effective April 13.

Some landlord attorneys are hoping judges will use their power to let non-payment eviction cases go forward. Existing eviction cases have been stalled since March 15, when New York state halted evictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic and demands from tenant groups and their advocates.

Gregg Kurlander, partner at Kucker Marino Winiarsky and Bittens, said he believes the new administrative order is the “catalyst … to move forward with resolving scores of housing court cases.” Specifically, he said, the administrative memo would allow landlords to advance pending nonpayment eviction cases that are “languishing” because courts shut down for non-essential cases.

A spokesperson for the state court system, Lucian Chalfen, said, “Motions, settlement conferences, pleas, anything pending that was frozen is open for conferencing should the parties want to move forward.” But he added, “We’re not asking lawyers to settle eviction cases.”

Tenants would also benefit from resolution of their eviction cases, Kurlander argued — including the potential to apply for a one-time emergency grant, known as a “one-shot deal.” The program is administered by the city’s Human Resource Administration, and this fiscal year was budgeted $1.6 billion for public assistance grants, including the emergency rent subsidies.

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Facing eviction is a qualification to receive the grant — one reason why, according to attorneys representing landlords, tenants should welcome the chance to be evicted in court virtually, while the threat of physical eviction is at bay. Receiving that assistance via their renters could help landlords in “dire straits,” said Kurlander.

“Landlords have no peace of mind regarding when they’ll get their rent,” said Kurlander. “What they want is to see some momentum.”

But tenant attorneys are not convinced the move would benefit their clients. Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, which represents low-income tenants, sees the move as little more than landlord opportunism, although the memo does not allow for new eviction cases to be initiated.

“We’re at the height of the crisis, 10,000 people have died and we’re grateful that only yesterday’s death toll was only 671,” said Davidson. “Perhaps now is not the time for landlords to force the reopening of the courts so that they can quickly evict all of their tenants affected by the pandemic.”

The strategy has yet to be tested. Still, landlord attorneys are holding out some hope, although the matter will be decided on a case-by-case basis, according to Sherwin Belkin, a partner at real estate law firm Belkin Burden Goldman.

“From reading the memo, it did seem to indicate that a case pending before the shutdown can proceed,” said Belkin. “How that’s actually going to happen at this point, I don’t know.”