While our state and federal Constitutions safeguard freedom of speech and assembly, even those fundamental protections have their limits.
In Christopher Housing Court Co. v. Murrell, an eviction proceeding was commenced against Maxine Murrell for "threatening the health and safety of landlord's personnel." We are informed that Ms. Murrell "taunted, cursed and used abusive language against the building site manager and building supervisor." Apparently, Ms Murrell would situate herself outside of the building's management office, hold up signs, and berate the building-management's employees.
Despite being given a "probationary period" during which time she was required to refrain from engaging in the violative behavior in question, and thereby avoid eviction, Ms. Murrell's conduct "continued unabated" for some three months. As a result, the Housing Court of the Civil Court of the City of New York found in the landlord's favor and issued a final judgment of possession against the tenant. On appeal, the Appellate Term, First Department, affirmed.
In a lone dissent, the Honorable Phyllis Gangel-Jacob disagreed with the case's outcome and questioned the interpretation of the evidence, as follows:
While the hearing evidence permits a finding that tenant continued to vent her anger at the building site manager, her...conduct, which essentially amounted to protests directed at building management, was not shown to have substantially threatened or jeopardized anyone's safety or otherwise disrupt the building's management or operations. Although the building site manager testified that she "felt threatened" by tenant's anger outbursts, there was no testimony that tenant directly threatened anyone's health and safety.Furthermore, Justice Gangel-Jacob believed that the record reinforced that the tenant was incapable of appreciating the consequences of her actions and that Ms. Murrell--who was not represented by counsel--was precluded from adequately defending her interests. This "diminished capacity" triggered a need for the trial court to have taken formal action to seek intervention or assistance for the tenant. As the dissenter observed:
Moreover, the pro se tenant's largely incoherent and rambling testimony demonstrates that she failed to understand the nature and potential consequences of the hearing, or her right to be represented by counsel and to produce witnesses on her own behalf. Under these circumstances, an adjournment of the compliance hearing for the appointment of a guardian ad litem or a referral to Protective Services for Adults was warranted to safeguard tenant's rights.While we do not sanction Ms. Murrell's conduct, and would not wish anyone to be the recipient of her ire, we agree that a higher degree of protection or care should have been afforded to Ms. Murrell in this particular instance.
For a copy of the Appellate Term's decision in the Christopher Housing Court Co. v. Murrell, please click on the following link: