In last week’s general election, more than 400,000 voters in Brooklyn selected seven civil judges (out of 11 names on the ballot) for Kings County Supreme Court. Three newcomers and four reelected incumbents will make up a roster of 40 or so judges on the Brooklyn civil bench.
Despite that long list of names, the most directly consequential cases handled by the county’s Supreme-Civil court, those involving residential foreclosures, are currently handled by just three judges. That the trio of Judges Lawrence Knipel, Mark Partnow and Noach Dear lacks demographic diversity is only one part of the problem.
The bigger issue is that all of the judges elected to preside over civil cases are capable of handling foreclosures, just as they do motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, insurance fraud or any of the other claims. Why only a handful of judges receive the foreclosures merits attention.
The key player in this process is Judge Knipel, the chief administrative judge of Brooklyn’s Supreme-Civil court. In early 2016, Knipel—working with the state Office of Court Administration, which oversees the county Supreme courts—created a special foreclosure “part,” meaning that all such cases would be directed to judges he assigned to handle them.
As explained in a report from the New York State Foreclosure Defense Bar, prior to 2016, foreclosure cases were assigned to wide range of Brooklyn civil judges, more than a dozen of whom wrote full decisions explaining their rulings.
The change by OCA and Knipel was designed to clear up a backlog of foreclosure cases that had stalled in the Brooklyn court, and others counties including Queens followed suit. By late 2016, financially strapped homeowners in both boroughs saw a spike in lenders’ actions against their properties.
In 2018, both Queens and Brooklyn are on pace for between 900-1200 first-time completed foreclosures. A recent OCA report touts the special judicial parts as “effective tools in reducing backlogs” in foreclosure cases.
Meanwhile, every Thursday afternoon in Brooklyn, speculators gather at the courthouse to bid on dozens of foreclosed residential properties now up for auction, many from the black and brown neighborhoods of Central Brooklyn.
As noted in the important Kings County Politics series on the borough’s foreclosures, Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Frank Seddio enjoys particularly close ties to Judges Knipel and Partnow, whose spouses Lori Citron Knipel and Sue Ann Partnow are both district leaders in the party.
Seddio, former vice president of a mortgage firm, now represents several defendants in Brooklyn foreclosure cases and treats the courthouse as his domain. While the party boss plays an instrumental role in picking which judges end up on the ballot, many on the Kings County Supreme-Civil roster are holdovers from the Clarence Norman era and thus have varying degrees of loyalty to Seddio.
In the wake of the mortgage crisis that led to the financial collapse of 2008, the New York State Senate passed legislation aimed at keeping property owners in their homes. The key component was the creation of a negotiation process (called a mortgage settlement conference) designed to “determin[e] whether the parties can reach a mutually agreeable resolution.”
Foreclosure defense attorneys active in Brooklyn say that the initial conference is not overseen by a judge, who takes on the case after it goes through that stage. Two judges currently handle most of the owner-occupied properties in jeopardy, Knipel and Dear. Of the two, Dear is viewed by attorneys as far more accommodating regarding borrowers’ requests for further conferencing at the critical stage when lenders are pushing for judgements and foreclosure actions.
Knipel is not only seen as pro-plaintiff (i.e. mortgage lender), but he frequently issues verbal judgements from the bench—or if a defendant has an effective attorney, he will write a short-form order. Neither provides the same complete grounds for appeal as the full decisions that his counterparts wrote before the creation of the special foreclosure part.
As foreclosures move “efficiently” through the Brooklyn courts, and threaten to displace many longtime residents of the borough, it is imperative that all borrowers receive the treatment called for by the state legislature.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn voters should be able to know that a much larger pool of judges they elected will handle any future actions against their properties—and that the Brooklyn courts are not simply greasing the wheels of real-estate speculation.
Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. He is the editor of Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn (Akashic Books, 2017).