The process, called an administrative dismissal, is enshrined in state law. The Office of Court Administration wiped out a category of older eviction cases that property owners started before the end of 2020 seeking to recover unpaid rent, in which tenants never filed a response and the landlords took no further action.

People entering Brooklyn Housing Court on the morning of March 20, 2023.

Earlier this month, nearly three years since the coronavirus hit New York City, court officials dismissed more than 120,000 open eviction cases in one fell swoop.

The process, called an administrative dismissal, is enshrined in state law. The Office of Court Administration wiped out a category of older eviction cases that property owners started before the end of 2020 seeking to recover unpaid rent, in which tenants never filed a response and the landlords took no further action.

“Because there’s no responsive papers, these are cases where a tenant never went to court to put in a defense,” said Justin La Mort, a supervising attorney at Mobilization for Justice who represents tenants in housing court. “So this to me strikes me as a very normal court function, and not anything nefarious. I think it’s really just an important administrative function to just clean it up, so we can have accurate data.”

But suddenly removing 121,394 pending eviction cases from the dockets in New York City had an immediate impact on the Eviction Crisis Monitor, a tool maintained by housing advocates at the Right to Counsel NYC coalition that pulls data directly from the courts to track filings statewide.

Even though the overall trend of increasing case volume persists, the number of pending cases—described on the crisis monitor as “how many tenants landlords are trying to evict”—decreased by more than 40 percent as a result of the administrative dismissal, from a high of over a quarter million. 

The coalition, along with attorneys who represent tenants, have been pressing the court system to slow its pace for calendaring eviction cases in recent months.

“If they were just sitting, you could probably make more of an argument that, ‘Yes there’s a crisis which needs further [case] stays because there’s 121,000 potential evictions,’” said Belkin Burden Goldman LLP attorney Benjamin Margolin, who represents landlords. 

But a case could be abandoned for a range of reasons, attorneys told City Limits, meaning the batch dismissal doesn’t correlate with a sudden drop in the number of tenants at risk of losing their home. 

And because the stagnant cases never saw a tenant mount a defense, their removal hasn’t reduced caseloads for tenant lawyers in the city’s overstretched Right to Counsel program, intended to provide free attorneys to low-income tenants citywide. 

La Mort said that most of his colleagues are currently maxed out. “When we’re looking at all of the people who are trying to get an attorney, and some people were never in court, that was never part of the challenge,” he said. 

Jessica Bellinder, supervising attorney for the housing justice unit at the Legal Aid Society, agreed. “It doesn’t impact our existing caseloads because they never got to the point where they ever would have been assigned for intake,” she said. 

According to the city’s latest report on its universal access to counsel program, 63 percent of tenants who appeared in New York City housing court between April and June of 2022 received legal representation, down from 71 percent for that period in 2021, which followed the program’s March 2020 citywide expansion.*

The years 2018 and 2019 saw representation rates around 30 percent for that period, when Right to Counsel was still a pilot program that had not yet expanded to all zip codes.

“Because [Right to Counsel] was limited at that time, I just don’t think we had as much difficulty keeping up with demand,” Bellinder of Legal Aid said. 

In a statement to City Limits, The city’s Office of Civil Justice (OCJ), which administers the Right to Counsel program, said in part, that “as we emerge from a pandemic which radically changed the operations of every public institution, including the housing court system, we are quickly working to address attendant challenges.” 

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the courts, said attorneys were informed in December that qualifying cases, which he described as “abandoned,” would be administratively dismissed. Courts posted about the plan in the New York Law Journal, and site managers were asked to hang notices in hallways. 

“Whatever our pending caseload is after the administrative dismissal would absolutely be more accurate than before, as we removed dead cases,” Chalfen told City Limits.

Short of attempting to contact all of the impacted tenants, it’s impossible to know how many of the dismissed cases represent a tenancy preserved or lost, attorneys said. 

Perhaps the tenant moved out after the case was filed, or their building was sold to a different owner who wasn’t aware of the case. Maybe federal rental assistance resolved the tenant’s debt outside of court.

Valentina Gojcaj, a property manager of 24 Bronx buildings, told City Limits that she had several tenants simply move out in 2020 after an eviction case was filed. “If the tenants skipped, we told attorneys to close the case,” she said. “But maybe smaller landlords, who aren’t as informed with the process, maybe let it go.”

A landlord might also have filed the case, not proceeded with it, and then filed another case against the same tenant down the road. This was common practice during the pandemic because months could pass between an eviction filing and the first court date,  according to Margolin. 

“Once you finally get to court, assuming [the tenant] paid the couple of months that you sued for, you would have to then seek those additional months thereafter in another case,” he told City Limits. 

All a landlord has to do to discontinue a case is submit a notice to the court. But this doesn’t necessarily happen. “If you’re dealing with volume cases… I guess a notice to end each case that’s an older index, I guess isn’t something that is always done,” Margolin added. 

Even an inactive case can be stressful, said Esteban Girón, an organizer with the Crown Heights Tenant Union. “It’s almost like an intimidation method,” he said. “The case is filed, the court says that you have an open case, but you may have already paid the landlord the money and it just sits there.” 

Giron’s landlord sued him in 2020, when the requirement for tenants to file an answer to an eviction case was temporarily suspended. The case remained open for over a year, and the stress made it difficult for him to sleep at night. 

“I don’t ever quite settle in,” he said. “And it’s always like that while there’s a case open —that’s, I think, how most people feel. You don’t ever have any sort of peace.” 

The OCJ has long disputed the accuracy of the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition’s Eviction Crisis Monitor, which they have said fails to account for inactive cases, cases resolved outside of court, or instances where tenants received attorney advice rather than full representation. 

Reached Monday, OCJ said that the administrative dismissal made the monitor more accurate, but continued to take issue with the tool’s reliability.

“Hopefully the tracker is now more in alignment with what [the courts] will acknowledge are active cases, which are still over 150,000 across the state,” said Lucy Block, a senior research and data associate with the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development who helped develop the tool. “It’s still an enormous number.” 

Meanwhile, tenant advocates continue urging the court to slow down dockets so that eviction cases do not move ahead without a tenant first being assigned to a lawyer.

“The courts are prioritizing clearing their dockets over making sure that people’s rights are being upheld,” said Susanna Blankley, coordinator with the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition. 

Yet Landlord attorneys said they hope the administrative dismissal will take some pressure off of court staff and help them work more efficiently.

“They’re so short-staffed that to have clerks have to track or figure out what to do with cases that clearly have been abandoned seems like an extra burden that they don’t need right now,” said Deborah Riegel, an attorney with Rosenberg & Estis PC. “I think this is probably a good exercise in clearing out cases that nobody should have to monitor or track.”

*A previous version of the story misstated the month and year that the Right to Counsel program expanded citywide. That took place in March 2020, not 2021.