Tenants could get more time to prepare for their housing court cases, thanks to a ruling late last month by a Brooklyn judge giving Housing Court–not the state legislature–the right to stay evictions for more than 10 days.
Last July, Housing Court judge Bernadette Bayne adjourned eviction proceedings against 70-year-old tenant Patricia Menkin for nearly a month, after she asked for time to find a lawyer. The landlord, Carlton Associates, appealed the adjournment, pointing to a 1997 state law that said a housing court postponement can’t take more than 10 days, unless both the tenant and landlord agree to it.
In his February 26 ruling backing Judge Bayne’s postponement, Supreme Court justice Reynold Mason argued that courts have the power to set their own calendars without interference from legislative bodies. Sarcastically dismissing the landlord’s “prayer for relief,” he sharply questioned whether the state legislature has the power to dictate the rules of Housing Court, arguing that the courts “are not puppets of the Legislature, they are an independent branch of government.”
Ironically, by the time Judge Mason ruled on the postponement, Menkin had reached an agreement to repay the back rent she owed. With her Legal Aid attorney, she went back before Judge Bayne and reached a settlement with the landlord in August, according to Diane Lutwak, the attorney in charge of Legal Aid’s Office for the Aging in Brooklyn.
Meryl Wenig, the landlord’s lawyer, couldn’t be reached for comment, but she recently told the New York Law Journal that she planned to appeal Judge Mason’s ruling to the Appellate Division, Second Department. If Judge Mason’s ruling stands, it will be a big help to tenants who often scramble for time in Housing Court, said Legal Services housing law coordinator Sandy Russo and other observers.
Tenants often need more than 10 days before their final eviction hearing to either get a lawyer or put together the money they owe. Most Legal Aid and Legal Services offices only take new clients once every two weeks, or even less often. Getting money through emergency government rent programs like Jiggetts or private anti-eviction funds takes weeks or months. It can also take weeks to build the paper trail that tenants often need to challenge their landlord’s versions of rent disputes, tenant advocates and lawyers said.
“Given the severity of eviction cases–it is about people losing their homes–it makes all the more sense that the courts should be cautious,” said Russo.
Some property owners disagree. Tenants who owe back rent have plenty of time to avoid evictions, countered Dan Margulies, president of the Community Housing Improvement Project, a landlords’ organization, pointing out that between the first eviction notice and the ultimate date in court, at least a month or two passes. He added he expects that Judge Mason’s ruling will be reversed on appeal, since it “breaks a statute. That’s a huge step–it’s very unusual for that to stand up on appeal.”
Only time will tell who wins the appeal, but tenant lawyers stand firm that postponements in housing court must be an option: “When it comes to poor people,” said Russo, “there’s an atmosphere of a rush to judgment.”