Attorneys at the Legal Aid Society’s Staten Island office got eviction filings thrown out of court due to the language used in them.
Civil Court Administrative Judge Anthony Cannataro threw out close to 40 pending eviction cases in Staten Island Housing Court after Legal Aid pointed out the bigoted language used in the filing on behalf on multiple landlords.
The original letter that is distributed to all tenants read, “DURING THE CORONAVIRUS EMERGENCY, YOU MIGHT BE ENTITLED BY LAW TO SPECIAL DEFENSES AND PROTECTION RELATING TO EVICTIONS.” The letter alerted tenants to contact their attorneys for more information or call a number and visit a website if they didn’t have one.
From the notice, both in English and in Spanish, Attorney Nichole E. Lee took out the term “CORONAVIRUS EMERGENCY” and replaced it with “CHINESE WUHAN VIRUS EMERGENCY.”
Lee was responsible for the eviction filings.
The AmNews tried to contact Lee a couple of times. She didn’t respond to the first call. On the second call, her voicemail was full. When Law360 contacted her, she answered, but refused to comment on the specifics on the situation.
“Last fall, the court issued a directive saying that from that point on, any new court case that was started in housing court in New York City when those papers were served in any new housing case had to have those notices attached,” said Teresa DeFonso, attorney-in-charge at the Staten Island Neighborhood Office at The Legal Aid Society. “This had to be attached to any case that you’re starting from this point.”
“My colleague and I were appalled,” DeFonso continued. “I was appalled and shocked. To use such offensive language and to alter a court-required notice was shocking.”
According to the New York City Office of Court Administration, the incident is currently under investigation.
Renters, like everyone else, were impacted by the coronavirus in 2020. Whether it was residents losing jobs or not being able to risk their health to perform the ones they already have, it was difficult for many to pay their landlords. The state government believes they can help.
This week, New York City Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that Albany would provide $3.5 billion in renters and small business assistance. The “Rental Assistance Program” makes up $2.7 billion of the total assistance to be distributed with applications being accepted starting June 1 for eligible New Yorkers.
According to the state, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance will be responsible for the program, which is supposed to provide assistance with up to 12 months of past-due rent, 3 months of prospective rental assistance and 12 months of utility arrears payments to eligible New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status.
Earlier this month, renters rallied outside of City Hall to demand a 5% rent rollback in response to rumors that the Rent Guidelines Board is leaning towards voting for another rent increase. Actions like the ones by Lee on behalf of landlords have created a rift between parties.
Adding bigoted language in court-documents made the atmosphere toxic for some.
When asked if she was surprised by the swiftness of the court’s actions, DeFonso said yes, but to a point.
“I was marginally surprised that it was within two days,” said DeFonso. “When you’re dealing with something like a court system and bureaucracy, I know there’s a certain procedure.”