Housing Court Post-Pandemic: Plagued by Delays
By Todd I. Nahins, Senior Partner, Borah, Goldstein, Altschuler, Nahins and Goidel, P.C.
The last time I wrote on the state of the Housing Court was over four years ago; I was not happy with the delays in obtaining trial dates and the length of time in which the judges took to render their decisions. Now I long for those days.
If Feb. 21, 2023, is your first court appearance in a landlord/tenant proceeding where you require a trial, it is not an exaggeration to expect to wait six months for a trial date. That is if everything goes according to plan! Whether you are commencing a nonpayment or holdover proceeding (nuisance, lease expiration, illegal sublet, illegal short-term use license, etc.), the first court date is uneventful unless your adversary wishes to settle. No matter the reason for the request for the adjournment, whether to obtain counsel, assignment of counsel, file an answer, or “the dog ate my defenses” (true story), the Court with few exceptions will grant at least a six-week adjournment.
On the adjourned date many things may happen with only one that will make the property owner seeking rent or possession of their apartment happy. Other than the possibility of a settlement where both litigants are represented by counsel, you may be given a motion schedule. If there is an issue brought to the attention of the court by tenant’s counsel regarding jurisdiction, dismissal, etc., and they request time to file a motion, the case will be further delayed for two months for argument on the motion. After submission and argument of the motion, it is possible that some judges will not decide the motion for six to 12 months. Again, not an exaggeration.
The Conference Judge may also adjourn the proceeding on the second, third, or fourth time the case is on, for months at a time, after failed attempts at settlement. If a settlement or other resolution cannot be obtained, there are Judges in the Housing Court who will continue to adjourn the proceeding for months, instead of transferring the case to a trial part.
The trial part is where the owner wants to be. The case is conferenced by the trial judge’s court attorneys, and if it is not settled the case is scheduled for a trial date. Unfortunately, the trial judges are so overwhelmed by cases because of the number of unsettled cases entering their parts, it may be over two or three months before you start the trial. The good news is once you are on trial, the judges either help the litigants settle the case or they make their decision. The problem for participants is the cost and length of time to get there.
Speeding Up the Process
Here are several suggestions that could speed up the court process within the framework of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act. Although a summary proceeding must be adjourned no less than 14 days, the Housing Court should not permit an adjournment past 21 days, unless there are special circumstances. Housing Court judges should render decisions on motions within 45 days after the motion is fully submitted. If the Court needs further time to render its decision, it should notify the parties specifying the estimated date for the decision.
Unless a motion has been served, the Housing Court intake/conference part should not be permitted, without the consent of the parties, to adjourn a case for a third time. Cases that have been adjourned twice without a settlement should be sent to the trial part.
The Legislature must allocate funds for the Office of Court Administration to increase the number of trial parts in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. I also suggest the Housing Court designate a small owners’ part in all Boroughs except Staten Island in which one judge will hear the case from start to finish both conferencing and going to trial, if necessary. Finally, the process of providing low-income tenants with an opportunity to seek counsel must be streamlined.
The pandemic-related budget shortfalls are expected to create additional cuts to funding for Housing Court staff, technology, and courtroom facilities. However, the courts must find creative solutions in order to provide both property owners and tenants access to justice.