On June 10, 2020, a coalition of nineteen legal-service organizations which provide assistance to low-income New Yorkers sent a letter to Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks. In it, they wrote that “[a]t a time in which tens of thousands of New Yorkers are sick, in mourning, and gripped by a collective sense of injustice and imbalance, reopening the Courts prematurely could put thousands more at risk of illness or death.”
In that correspondence, the organizations asked Judge Marks to delay the re-opening of the courts -- citing to both the ever-present COVID-19 risks, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The advocates further pointed to the court system’s own statistics which reveal that not only have some 170 employees been infected with COVID-19, but that two Kings County Court Supreme justices perished at the hands of the virus.
The advocates also noted that a recent walkthrough of the New York City housing courts uncovered that the facilities had not been retrofitted to mitigate the risks of a public re-opening. The organizations observed that our local courthouses had ”few meaningful safety measures in place to protect litigants, housing attorneys and court staff from possible infection.” (Apparently, the facilities lacked modifications found in courthouses elsewhere in the state -- like acrylic barriers and hand sanitizer dispensers.3] ) In fact, the Administrative Judge of New York City’s Civil Court conceded that the Kings County building, at 171 Livingston Street, poses special challenges with its narrow hallways and limited elevators.
Given estimates that over 50,000 eviction proceedings may be filed once the Civil Court fully resume operations, many are of the view that such an influx would lead to crowded courthouses which would make compliance with social-distancing guidelines and other protective measures all but impossible. And, in light of current unemployment levels, nonpayment proceedings would not likely be resolved without evictions. Finally, tenant advocates have added that, as a proximate result of the virus, they have been compelled to work remotely and must deal with health and childcare issues of their own; and may not be able to return to work to address the influx of cases
The New York Family Court Judges Association recently released a letter raising similar concerns about the dangers associated with a premature return to courthouses, including compelling parents and children to risk their health and safety by taking mass transit to attend hearings. (The judges asked to be involved in the reopening’s decision-making process.)
Court staff associations and union leaders have also expressed their share of frustration and reservations. Glenn Damato, the president of the New York State Court Clerks Association, noted that he is “very much concerned for [NYSCCA’s] members at this point” and complained that "[n]obody's telling me their plan. Everyone's hiding out from me. OCA is hiding out." Mr. Damato has, among other things, called for the courthouses to update their ventilation systems. David Wayne, a Spanish language interpreter who works in the Bronx County Civil Court, and heads the interpreter’s Chapter of Local 1070 of District Council 37, is also advocating for a delayed reopening, and commented that “the reopening is being done in kind of a haphazard way.” Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association, reiterated similar unease.
Not surprisingly, landlords’ groups have an entirely different view of the re-opening. Mitchell Posilkin, general counsel of the Rent Stabilization Association, which purportedly represents some 25,000 property owners, recently noted that while his members are certainly concerned about the health risks, since they are suffering from months of nonpayment of rent, many are apprehensive about their ability to meet operating costs and expenses, like property-tax payments which are due on July 1st. Another landlord attorney, Michael Rosenthal of Hertz Cherson & Rosenthal PC, told Law360 that he is “satisfied” with the courts’ current reopening plans.
For now, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has robotically maintained that the court administration “will rigorously monitor safety protocols and day-to-day operations, carefully balancing the justice needs of those served by our New York City courts with the safety of all those who work in and visit courthouses in the five boroughs.”
The Office of Court Administration, “OCA,” has observed that "[t]he first phase of resuming in-person operations of courts in New York City has been a result of both our experience with court buildings upstate and a careful, measured, deliberative process that has included court managers, unions, bar groups and anyone else who has a stake in how our courts will move forward." It has further laid out the steps being taken to safeguard everyone -- including, screening of all non-staff visitors for COVID-19, requiring that all members of the public wear masks, regular sanitization, and the placement of markings which encourage social distancing. (Acrylic barriers, hand sanitizer dispensers and other safety measures “will be installed in courthouse areas as needed.”)
Only time will tell how OCA will respond to these pressures, but they continue to mount as we slowly attempt to return to some level of much-needed normalcy.