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After owner victory: 'we'll wait & see.' (providing a more fair and efficient New York City housing court)

After a federal judge signed an agreement designed to end bias against owners in New York City housing court, members of the rent-stabilized community were hopeful that the initiatives outlined will help provide for a more fair and efficient housing court.

The settlement is a result of the class action law suit filed in 1989 on behalf of New York City residential property owners. The action was spearheaded by the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA). Attorney Jay Goldberg was lead counsel in the suit. Manhattan Federal Judge Shirley Wohl Kram presided over the case.

This is "a victory for property owners or anyone who feels they've been abused or mistreated in the housing court," said John J. Gilbert, president of RSA. The initiatives, he said, should create a more balanced court for owners and tenants.

The suit filed in Manhattan Federal Court in 1989 claimed such abuses by housing court judges as: delaying evictions, refusing to mandate rent deposits by tenants despite owners' legal right to such rent, denying owners the right to recover court costs and legal fees from tenants. The suit also claimed the judges had reversed eviction orders for "invalid or frivolous reasons" and had "unfairly berated landlords in open court," said Goldberg.

The initiatives, signed by Judge Jacqueline W. Silberman, the administrative judge of the New York City Civil, are said to streamline the court proceedings especially in the area of evictions.

Among the initiatives are: warrants must be issued by clerks within 10 days, rents must be deposited in the court or the judge must show good cause why he has refused to require it, judges are not permitted to go off the record, unless both sides consent or good cause is shown in the record before they do.

In addition, to the recommendations for behavior, owners were pleased to find, Judge Kram retained jurisdiction over the case for three years.

According to Gilbert, one of the most significant changes is in the issuing of warrants. "Clerks sat on the warrants and it's been really hard to get the warrants out of the offices," said Gilbert.

In addition, he said, rents will have to be deposited in the court, and judges after the second adjournment, will have to show good cause why they refuse to require this.

Also among the initiatives were the owner-assistance tables that were agreed to earlier this year and have already been installed outside of Manhattan and Bronx housing court rooms. They will begin in Queens starting Oct. 3 and next month in Brooklyn.

"The settlement really reflects that some action was necessary to level the playing field," said Gilbert.

Assuming the agreement is enforceable, it should have some helpful impact for owners, said Joseph Burden, an attorney with Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman that practices in housing court. Burden said he is most thrilled about the speeding of the warrant process. Previously, he said, it could take up to two to three months to get one issued. The quicker an owner gets a warrant, Burden said, the sooner he can "get the apartment back, re-rented and part of the rent roll."

So, Now What?

Now that the initial joy has subsided, many owners and attorneys are asking 'will the initiatives be enforced?' Some fear it could be business as usual. Most are comforted, however, by the judge keeping the case under her jurisdiction.

Ruben Klein, president of the Bronx Realty Advisory Board (BRAB), said the agreement provides basic things owners have a right to. "The implementation of those rights are the thing that scares us to death, he said.

Klein said owners, with the help of the Rent Stabilization Association, will be monitoring the enforcement of the initiatives. "We're going to monitor the court on the implementation of the things we signed off on and things we're entitled to," he said.

The city, today, he said, has more inrems than ever and hopefully these provisions will help change that.

Marty Heistein, counsel for RSA, said the owner information tables will be helping with enforcement. While the tables are set up to provide information for owners and are not designed solely for complaints, Heistein said, RSA urges any attorney or owner that experiences unfairness to fill out a form available at the tables.

RSA, he said, receives copies of the complaint and logs them by judge name, court, and type of grievance. They will then be able to give a report to Judge Silberman. If the case goes back to federal court, the complaints can serve as evidence.

Heistein also noted that the agreement sets up an internal docketing system whereby owners can track their case and know which judge was in charge of it and what papers were submitted when. Then he will know when a fair amount of time has passed without action and he'll know who to complain to.

Larry Borah of Finkelstein, Borah, Schwartz, Altschuler, said he was glad to see thatthe case would be left on the books for three years, because that at least provides an "ear" for owners. But, he said, it is very difficult for an administrative judge or a court to control the actions of any single judge.

In addition, Borah said he worries about the ability of the housing court staff to speed up the warrant process. He fears they may be too inexperienced.

"IF there really are changes, it was good," he said. "And if there's not, we have to pursue that with the federal court."
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Author:Fitzgerald, Therese
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Oct 2, 1991
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