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Ask Sam: I had a trial pending in housing court when Covid hit. What happens now?

As of now, housing courts are planning to reopen and schedule cases that were delayed by the coronavirus lockdown. 

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Question:

I’m a renter who had a trial that had just started in housing court when the pandemic hit and the courts shut down. Now that they are reopening, what can I expect?

Answer:

Although it’s a controversial decision, New York City housing courts are planning to reopen, and will prioritize cases with trials that had already commenced before March 16th, says Sam Himmelstein, an attorney with the law firm Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. 

“The courts have announced their reopening, over the strenuous objections of the tenant advocacy community, and a part of their gradual reopening will be physical appearances in court,” Himmelstein says.

The plan is to begin by opening the Brooklyn housing court and resuming trials starting on July 27th, and then gradually expand to courts in all boroughs, beginning with cases that were already underway prior to the city’s shutdown. The courts are trying to clear their backlog of cases before taking on new ones, so those who had trials that had already commenced will receive a notice about when that trial will continue.

Some housing court business—like arguments of motions and settlement and scheduling conferences, which only require attorneys and judges to be present—will be held remotely, while trials will be scheduled to be conducted in person. The courts say they will enforce social distancing by keeping people six feet apart, which could help prevent the spread of coronavirus but does present other concerns.

“It’s a due process violation, in my opinion, because it prevents lawyers and clients from privately conferring,” Himmelstein says.

Legal unions are pushing back, citing concerns about health and safety. The Legal Services Staff Association and Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, along with tenant advocacy groups, are calling on the Office of Court Administration to keep the courts closed, arguing that amid job loss and unemployment, rent should be canceled and the eviction moratorium extended, Law360 reported. And if thousands of NYC attorneys refuse to appear in court, housing court trials will not be able to recommence. 

If your trial does resume, keep in mind that an eviction moratorium remains in place through the end of the summer.

“With the eviction moratorium, if you’re brought into court you can only be evicted if you go to trial, lose the case, and don’t vacate the apartment by the date you’ve been ordered to. You could also be evicted if you enter into a settlement agreement and don’t make the payments required, or vacate the apartment when you agreed to do so,” Himmelstein says. “If the tenant loses the trial, or fails to comply with the settlement agreement, the court would then have to issue a judgement and warrant of eviction, stating how long the tenant has to comply, and that’s the part there’s a moratorium on—marshals can’t proceed with evictions until after August.”

It’s possible that moratorium will be extended; it may also take some time for your trial to be scheduled at all, given that the court administrators claim that there is a backlog of 200,000 pending cases. And for tenants concerned about being sued for issues that arose since the onset of the pandemic, it’s unlikely they’ll be called into court any time soon.

“If you had a case that just started, but hadn’t gone to trial yet, I don’t think you’re going to see a trial date scheduled in the near future,” Himmelstein says.

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Read all our Ask a Renters Rights Lawyer columns here.


Sam Himmelstein, Esq. represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts, and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph in Manhattan. To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam or call (212) 349-3000.