Keeping Up With the Times: New York City Housing Court Seeks to Implement ChangesMay 2019 | By: Michelle P. Quinn, Esq. | GDB 2019 Spring Newsletter
It has long been noted that the existing housing courts are ill-equipped to handle the number of litigants and extensive caseloads which New York City’s housing courts see each day. From the long lines of litigants (often with children), to the lack of available courtrooms and meeting spaces, and even failing infrastructure, it has become increasingly difficult for matters to be equitably and efficiently resolved.
In 2017, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore created a Special Commission on the Future of the New York City Housing Court. Members of the Commission included active and retired housing court judges, legal services providers, private practice attorneys representing landlords, tenants, or both, and others. The Commission recommended numerous proposed reforms to effect a transformation of the housing court.
One major change which has already taken place is the Universal Access to Legal Services Law, signed into law in 2017, which provides access to legal representation in housing court to low-income tenants facing possible eviction living in certain New York City areas. Other litigants who do not meet the requirements will also have access to a free legal consultation. Attorneys representing landlords are encouraged to include information regarding this new law in the notice of petition when commencing a proceeding. It is believed that the assignment of counsel under this plan should happen at the earliest opportunity to facilitate early resolution of disputes between landlords and tenants.
Other reforms that have already been implemented include elimination of certain specialized parts (including those for condominium and cooperative apartments and those involving military personnel). Matters involving condominiums and cooperatives are now heard by all housing court judges randomly assigned by the clerk’s office, not automatically directed to a specific part.
Trial assignment has also changed. If cases are not settled in the resolution part, matters are sent to a trial assignment part where they are immediately assigned to a trial part. Prior practice was for litigants to wait in the assignment part until a trial part became available, sometimes for several hours or even days, further delaying trial. Now, to further expedite the process, after being assigned to a trial part, litigants must participate in a pre-trial conference before the trial judge to resolve any evidentiary issues, identify exhibits and witnesses, and potentially resolve the proceeding.
On the horizon are procedural improvements such as staggered calendars, multi-language forms, and electronic filing.
Instead of only two (or sometimes three) start times for court appearances (9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., or 2:00 p.m.), with the majority of cases being scheduled for 9:30 a.m., the staggered calendars proposed by the Commission address several current difficulties, including decreasing congestion in security lines, courtrooms, and hallways, and enabling landlord attorneys to timely appear in multiple parts, thereby reducing tenant wait times.
The New York Supreme Court has had mandatory electronic filing (“e-filing”) for all cases filed since February 19, 2013, which has streamlined the efficiency of service and filing of pleadings, motions, orders, and other legal documents. In Supreme Court, to a limited extent, litigants may opt-out of e-filing, typically where a litigant is not represented by counsel. Conversely, in housing court, litigants would be able to opt-in to participate in e-filing, but it would not be mandatory (at least initially). The advent of e-filing would consequently necessitate increased availability of court-provided computer terminals for submission or retrieval of documents, as well as additional court personnel and information to guide litigants through the e-filing process.
Ideally, court buildings would be redesigned to provide private or semi-private areas for conferencing; concession stands to enable litigants to get lunch or other refreshments without having to exit and re-enter the courthouse (requiring re-screening by security); and child-friendly areas with books, games, and snacks. Of more urgent need is improved maintenance of bathrooms and stairwells; clearer signage and information to properly direct litigants; and appropriate surfaces and seating areas for drafting of in-court settlement agreements.
The recent legislation is a promising step toward improving conditions and procedures in New York City Housing Courts. Many of the proposed enhancements will necessarily take time to adopt, and some are so financially ambitious – such as structural redesign and upgrades - that they may take years to realize. With an average of 350,000 filings in housing court each year, the strain on the system is great, and the need for improvement is real.