A newly formed association of attorneys for Brooklyn tenants met on Feb. 29 with Judge John Lansden, the supervising judge of the borough’s Housing Court, to discuss problems at the court.
Judge Lansden addressed complaints about the court’s physical environment, out-of-date technology, calendars that are difficult to read, inadequate information for pro se litigants and other issues during a wide-ranging Q&A session with the Brooklyn Tenant Lawyers Network, attended by nearly 50 attorneys from private law firms and legal services organizations at the Brooklyn Neighborhood Office of the Legal Aid Society.
The network was launched in January to advocate for a more tenant-friendly court. The organization serves as a counterpoint to the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association, which the group says is dominated by landlord attorneys.
“Tenants get the short end of the bargain because they are often unrepresented, so we formed this group because we wanted to have a voice for tenant advocates who can hopefully improve conditions for tenants and improve conditions overall,” Sateesh Nori, the director of housing litigation at Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Legal Services and a member of the network’s steering committee, said in an interview.
The group notes that 15 percent or less of tenants in Brooklyn Housing Court are represented by attorneys, while most landlords can afford counsel. Last year, 15 judges handled 73,792 cases in Brooklyn Housing Court, which is located at 141 Livingston St.
A major concern echoed by both tenant and landlord counsel is the court building itself. Unlike housing courts in other boroughs, Brooklyn Housing Court is a converted office space, not originally designed to be a courthouse. Consequently, the building lacks enough seating and waiting space to accommodate the large volume of people who pass through its doors each day. This leads to crowded hallways, where litigants gather around doorways out of fear that they will not hear their case get called.
Mr. Nori noted that litigants and attorneys encounter long elevator lines, poorly maintained rest rooms, hallways that are difficult for the disabled to navigate and no day care center at the court. Though Judge Lansden noted that the court system has worked to fix elevators and create more open spaces and seating, Mr. Nori said the building itself is the issue.
“At some point we might be up against the limits of what we can do in this building,” he said, adding that Judge Lansden did not indicate any plans to move the court to another location.
Similar concerns were raised in a December 2011 report by Make the Road New York, a community group providing legal representation to more than 7,000 low-income, Hispanics.
Other issues identified in the 2011 report, called “Home Court Advantage: How Landlords Are Winning and Tenants Are Losing in Brooklyn Housing Court,” include a lack of interpreters for non-English speakers and unsupervised negotiations that take place in the hallways between landlord attorneys and pro se litigants. Marika Dias, the supervising attorney at Make the Road, is also a member of the network’s steering committee.
The Feb. 29 meeting was closed to reporters. The court system declined to make Judge Lansden available for comment and referred calls to Judge Fern A. Fisher (See Profile), deputy chief administrative judge for New York City courts, Judge Fisher said in an interview that Judge Lansden called the Q&A session a “positive meeting.”
She said administrators soon will be taking additional steps to improve the court. These include posting rules and providing a “road map” that litigants can follow when they go to court.
Judge Fisher also said that she recently issued a directive to court attorneys assigned to Housing Court detailing the information they must review with unrepresented litigants to make sure proceedings are understood.
In terms of the court’s facilities, Judge Fisher noted that the city has obtained more space for the court in the building since it opened. She added that, though other city housing courts face their own problems, Brooklyn Housing Court is a challenge because it is the only city court that was not designed as a courthouse.
At the meeting with the tenant attorneys, Judge Lansden said that lawyers frequently are late, delaying proceedings. Network attorneys countered that the primary offenders were landlord attorneys, who juggle as many as 40 cases per day and go between courtrooms with little time to devote to individual cases.
Michael Rosenthal, president of the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association, denied that claim, saying the landlord attorneys he works with are in court at 9 a.m., and are often waiting for tenant attorneys.
“We’re usually in the building long before them and working on cases long before them,” Mr. Rosenthal said in an interview.
He added that, though most members of his bar association are landlord attorneys, the organization is open to tenant lawyers as well. Noting that only one member of the tenant network was ever involved in his group, Mr. Rosenthal said the tenant attorneys “can’t have a voice if they don’t show up at the meeting.”
Discussing conditions in Housing Court, Sergio Jimenez, director at Bushwick Housing & Legal Assistance and a member of the network’s steering committee, said in an interview that Judge Lansden is “shackled” by a lack of resources, unable to get funding for something as simple as printers.
Mr. Nori agreed that funding cuts are impacting the court’s ability to tackle problems.
“The court is aware of these issues and have the same concerns, but I think it’s a difficult climate,” Mr. Nori said. “The budget is tight and no one is making any promises about what they are able to do.”
Judge Fisher said the court has been unable to increase its interpreter staff and is stretched on clerical support and court officers due to budget cuts. Those cuts, however, have not impacted the facility, she said, because funding for renovations and leasing comes from the city, not court, budget.
Mr. Nori said the meeting, the first session sponsored by the network, served a useful purpose.
“For the first time we had many, if not all, of the organizations that represent tenants in Brooklyn in the same room and, for the first time, those organizations had the ear of the supervising judge,” Mr. Nori said. “I think that’s a big step to making it more of a fair place for tenants.”
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