When I walked into Manhattan Housing Court a few weeks ago, I knew we had a strong case. Our client, a disabled 87-year-old woman, was facing eviction from the rent-controlled apartment where she has been living for more than 40 years. Her landlord alleged that she had failed to pay rent that she had in fact paid. The case should have been dismissed on that basis alone, but when the Proskauer team went before the judge to argue our motion for summary judgment, the judge asked whether our client owed rent for months not at issue in the lawsuit.
The landlord’s counsel claimed that our client did not pay rent for two months in 2016, and therefore our motion should be denied. Luckily, we anticipated the landlord’s arguments in our papers, explaining that our client had diligently paid her rent with the exception of two months when she was forced out of her apartment due to deplorable conditions. The day after oral argument, the judge dismissed the case, finding that our client had been constructively evicted from her apartment during the period not at issue in the lawsuit and did not otherwise owe any rent. Our client was overjoyed, and we were thrilled to help her remain in her home. As I think about this case, I can’t help but wonder how different the outcome might have been had our client not been represented by counsel.
Appearing in housing court for the first time is an eye-opening experience. The building is imposing and crowded. Long lines of people form in front of metal detectors at the building’s entrance. In the courtroom, dozens of people wait as landlords’ attorneys loudly call out names, gesturing the tenants they are trying to evict into the hallway, trying to work out a deal out of sight of the judge. All this happens while the stakes could not be higher. The loss of an apartment can be devastating, especially considering that there are currently over 400,000 families on waiting lists for affordable housing in New York City, according to Legal Services NYC from which we were referred this case,
Without representation, our client might not have known that she did not owe rent for the months in which she was constructively evicted. She might have answered the judge in the affirmative when asked if she had not paid rent at any point. She might have been too intimidated by the judge or the opposing counsel to plead her case. Scared of losing her home, she might have agreed to pay off the two months’ rent she allegedly owed with money she did not have, ultimately resulting in her eviction.
Recognizing that our adversarial system works best to protect vulnerable individuals and communities when both sides have legal representation, New York City recently began guaranteeing a lawyer to every resident facing eviction. As our case and countless others demonstrate, this is a critically important step in securing equal access to justice.