Rights Could Be Written In Busy Court Hallways

In hundreds of thousands of housing court cases each year, tenants operate with a handicap. One group is working to change that.

By: By Rachel Nielsen

Walk into Bronx County Housing Court, and it’s hard to miss the pattern: Lawyers in suits and ties are negotiating with tenants in t-shirts and jeans in the hallways outside the courtrooms. The lawyers represent landlords, while the tenants represent themselves. Many cases – ranging from evictions to unpaid rent – are settled in these conversations, where an agreement is made between the landlord’s attorney and the tenant.

“This is the practice of hallway law,” noted Eric Torres in one of those halls in the Bronx housing court last Tuesday. Torres, a lawyer with his own practice, stands in for tenants at the request of the court and sometimes represents landlords.

He said tenants don’t always know they have the right to a lawyer, nor do they know how to use legal technicalities to get a favorable decision. “If each tenant had a lawyer, things would be more balanced,” he said. “They are not balanced right now.”

That’s the impetus behind the “Housing Court Bill of Rights,” a document that housing court reform advocates have been trying to post and distribute in housing courts throughout New York City. It's a step that has been rejected twice in the past year by the administrative judge for civil court, tenant advocates say. But the bill of rights campaign picked up steam last week, with a press conference, a City Council resolution and an offer by the Office of Court Administration.

The bill of rights was drafted by the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a long-running coalition of citizens’ groups and legal aid programs. Last Tuesday, City-Wide held a rally outside the Bronx housing court to publicize the concept. The next day, City Councilmember Helen Diane Foster introduced a resolution calling on the housing court system “to prominently display” the bill of rights and to make copies available to all litigants in housing court.

The bill of rights is a list of legal reminders, such as that translators can be provided by housing court, that a litigant can choose to not speak with the other side’s lawyer, and that a litigant has the right to access his court file.

Trying to ensure that New York City's housing courts are providing fair resolutions is no small matter. There is a housing court in each borough, and more than 300,000 cases involving residential landlords and tenants are filed in housing court each year, according to the New York state court system. Landlords who bring cases are generally seeking unpaid rent or trying to evict unlawful tenants. Tenants can file claims to force landlords to do repairs, or file counterclaims for problems such as illegal apartment conditions.

City-Wide has been working on the bill of rights for about two years. According to Joe Lamport, assistant director for City-Wide, the coalition sent the bill of rights to Judge Fern A. Fisher, the civil court administrative judge, last summer. City-Wide asked if she would allow it to be posted in the housing courts. According to City-Wide, her response was the wording wasn’t neutral enough. City-Wide then sent an edited version to Fisher, and she declined to post that version, said Lamport.

However, the Office of Court Administration is willing to speak with Councilwoman Foster, News 12 in the Bronx reported last week. And the office is "open to dialogue" with tenants' rights groups, the office’s spokesman, David Bookstaver, told City Limits.

"We're not going to post what they wanted us to post," Bookstaver said, but the office could work with City-Wide to come up with something "amenable to both the tenants' rights groups and the court system." Fisher couldn't be reached for comment.

Lamport said he's "actually very optimistic” about the court’s overture, and his group is open to making additional changes to the bill of rights wording, he said. With statements like, "You are entitled to proper notification of the case against you," the wording is now tenant-focused.

There are various estimates for just how many tenants are without a lawyer in housing court, but they're all large numbers. A study released in February by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the Center for Human Environments at the CUNY Graduate Center found that more than 75 percent of tenants facing eviction didn’t have legal representation. Judith Goldiner, a senior attorney with Legal Aid Society who is on City-Wide’s executive committee, estimates that 90 percent of all tenants in housing court don't have lawyers.

Tenants sometimes can get free or low-cost legal assistance, such as from Legal Aid Society, Legal Services for New York City, the city’s Adult Protective Services and the housing court system itself.

But the high percentage of unrepresented tenants “really is the crux of the problem,” said Lamport. Given that tenants generally know little about defending themselves while landlords have lawyers, it’s an “unfair fight,” he said.

If tenants “become more informed" of their rights, Lamport said, they can “become more assertive.” (For more on the court, see Housing Court Judged Inadequate, City Limits Weekly #572, Jan. 29, 2007.)

Stipulations, as the settlements reached outside of the courtroom are known, are another issue. Goldiner, of Legal Aid, said “the vast majority” of housing court cases are resolved with stipulation agreements. If the tenant doesn’t have a lawyer, then the stipulation has to be read, or allocuted, to both parties in the case by the judge, she explained. The stipulations allow the tenant and landlord, or their representatives, to avoid a trial.

Lamport thinks the stipulations allow for tenants to be manipulated, with little ethical review. “No one monitors the hallways,” he commented.

At least some landlord attorneys are in favor of having the bill of rights posted in court. Some lawyers at Bronx housing court last week said they agreed with the measure. Torres, who does a lot of pro bono work on behalf of tenants, agreed with the concept of the bill of rights, but said the language may need to be neutralized, to make it fair to both tenants and landlords.

“It’s a good idea,” said Jeffrey Lubin, who was representing landlords at the Bronx court on Tuesday. "There’s a lot of tenants out there who don’t know what their rights are,” he added later.

But, Lubin said, displaying or distributing a bill of rights would only do so much for tenants. The practice of law is about knowing how to apply it, he said, and knowing the rules isn’t necessarily enough.

Lamport said his group would like to see all sides in housing court represented by an attorney, as happens in criminal court. The bill of rights “is a small step” in what he called “a long-term fight, to get everybody the right to counsel in housing court.”

- Rachel Nielsen