No Ears to Hear
Complaints Against Housing Court Judges
The men and women presiding over Housing Court in New York City have a difficult job. Each year, almost 300,000 summary proceedings are brought by landlords seeking eviction orders against tenants. With most tenants unrepresented and most owners represented by one of several dozen insider landlord law firms, the idea that New Yorks rent and eviction protections apply to most tenants is a legal fiction.
Many tenants refuse to go quietly though a process they are not allowed to participate in fully and which threatens to throw their families on the street. Confrontations between tenants and judges occasionally result. In other case, judges, being human, occasional make mistakes, even serious mistakes. One Housing Court judge in Manhattan, Arthur Scott, was convicted three years ago of taking bribes from owners to order evictions, and another former Manhattan housing judge, currently sitting in Queens, was the subject of the same investigation but never charged.
Yet amazingly, there does not seem to be a mechanism for complaints about Housing Court judges. The states highest court has ruled that they are not even judges in the constitutional sense, simply hearing officers. Late last year, the state legislature, in granting pay increases for every other kind of judge in the state, specifically excluded New York City Housing Court judges (who already earn $95.000 annual salaries). Political insiders agreed that this was an explicit message that evictions are still moving too slowly.
Because they are not judges in the constitutional sense, complaints about Housing Court judges cannot be made to the Commission on Judicial Conduct. The Housing Court Advisory Council, created in 1971 by the same law that created Housing Court, is required to make annual reports about Housing Court, but its next reportexpected this yearwill be its first. While the Advisory Council reviews applicants for Housing Court vacancies, and reviews the records of judges seeking reappointment at the end of their five-year terms, it does not otherwise investigate or act on complaints about Housing Court judges.
A case in point concerns the complaint filed by attorney Rick Wagner of Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. A on behalf of Diana Williams. The complaint, which was filed in May 1998, alleges that Judge Sue Ann Hoahng, a Housing Court judge in Brooklyn, ordered Williams eviction after expelling her from the courtroom for allegedly chewing gum; that Williams was required to leave the courtroom or face arrest; that when she sent a friend into the courtroom, the friend was shocked to hear the judge say Williams was going to be evicted because she was not present in the courtroom; that when the friend objected, Judge Hoahng had both her and Williams, who was still outside the courtroom, arrested for disrupting the court; and that Williams was evicted and remained homeless for two weeks before obtaining a lawyer and getting her home back.
Wagners complaint to the Office of Court Administration has not even been acknowledged.
Several years ago, the bribery charges against Judge Scott and the misconduct charges against Judge Bruce Gould supposedly led OCA to set up a mechanism to refer serious complaints against Housing Court judges to Hon. Joan Lobis, a well-respected Civil Court judge. Judge Lobis confirmed that she she is in charge of hearing complaints but only on referral through OCA. She would not comment on whether she has actually heard any complaints. Judge Scott resigned after being convicted in criminal court, and Judge Gould was allowed to serve out his term without being considered for reappointment. People familiar with Housing Court and OCA have concluded that the complaint against Judge Hoahng is also being buried in view of the pending expiration of her term in Junemore than a year after the complaint was filed.
Met Council has begun to collect specific complaints from tenants or advocates in which they feel a Housing Court judge has acted improperly. Please understand that, as much as we would like to, we are not in a position to find lawyers to redress these complaints; our intention here is to gather these complaints in order to work to create a forum where these and similar complaints can be addressed.