Real estate attorneys predict bottleneck, brain drain after court cuts

Judges’ requests to avoid forced retirement will be denied, saving $55 million

Cuts at New York’s court system point to an acute backlog next year (iStock; wallyg via Wikipedia)
Cuts at New York’s court system point to an acute backlog next year (iStock; wallyg via Wikipedia)

Real estate litigants looking to the state Supreme Court to hear their cases face a likely slowdown next year as the courts implement budget cuts.

Judge Lawrence Marks, the court system’s chief administrative judge, announced this week that the court system had found a way to make $55 million of the $300 million in cuts Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanded in April, as first reported by the New York Post.

That savings came with a lofty sacrifice: Judges over 70 years old, who represent 3.5 percent of the Supreme Court bench, will not be granted exemptions from the state-mandated retirement age of 70. Under normal circumstances, those judges would be granted up to three additional two-year terms.

Housing Court judges were never eligible for the exemption, a court spokesperson said.

According to sources, the cuts will lead to the reassignment of 3,000 cases — at a time when more property owners are looking to recover rent by suing in Supreme Court. That is even true for residential landlords, given that Housing Court has largely been frozen since March.

Since the onset of the pandemic, some property owners looking for alternative ways to collect rent have turned to ejectment actions in the state Supreme Court, rather than pursuing cases in Housing Court, which is usually faster.

The loss of older judges concerns those who practice law, because while their number may be low, attorneys consider their experience and knowledge to be a precious resource.

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“It’s not just the pure numbers, it’s the fact that you’re losing your most experienced judges,” said Deborah Riegel, an attorney at Rosenberg and Estis.

She added that although the court system faced a crisis in 2009 during the financial crisis, the court’s current crisis felt “preventable.” She blamed insufficient policy responses from the federal government, particularly in addressing state budget shortfalls.

“It’s not a random selection — this is taking a lot of the institutional knowledge from the court,” said Riegel of the forced retirements. “And it’s coming at a time when, because Housing Court is frozen, many owners are taking cases that would have normally been in Housing Court to Supreme Court.”

The cuts have also raised concerns of the court system’s ability to contend with a growing backlog of cases — which might become severe when temporary limits on commercial and residential evictions end. Earlier this week, Cuomo extended until January the terms of a law which limits evictions for non-payment, even to the 14,000 eviction cases pending since before Covid.

A ban on commercial evictions, which has been repeatedly renewed, is set to expire Oct. 20.

Without a long-term plan to deal with the impending bottleneck, courts may “cease to function in a manner that effectively serves the public interest, and once people have little faith that they can resort to court process, chaos will ensue,” said Nativ Winiarsky, a partner at law firm Kucker Marino Winiarsky and Bittens. “This does not bode well.”