Legal Aid's Major Victory For Mother Of Three Against NYCHA Results In Renewed Demands For Reform
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 04, 2013

In a Legal Aid Society case, Manhattan Housing Judge Phyllis Saxe found the New York City Housing Authority in contempt and fined the agency over $19,000 for ignoring court orders to restore hot water to Cheryl Brown's East River Houses apartment where she and her three young children had been without hot water for more than two years. When she eventually came to The Legal Aid Society for help, Alan Canner, a Staff Attorney in the Society's Harlem Community Law Office, took the case and successfully moved to have NYCHA held in contempt. When Legal Aid intervened, NYCHA immediately restored hot water for Ms. Brown and her family as well as for other tenants in the building.

“She went to court a million times and they just kept saying they’ll fix it and they didn’t fix it,” Canner told the Daily News. “They’re not very good with the repairs. You have to hit them over the head. You have to go to court to get the repair.”

After the Daily News published a story on the case, there have been renewed demands for reform in NYCHA. The Daily News revealed that NYCHA spends $8 million a year on lawyers to fight tenants. Judith Goldiner, Attorney-in-Charge of Legal Aid's Civil Practice Law Reform Unit, told the Daily News that the tenants are no match for the lawyers who are “just there all the time. That’s kind of what makes it unfair, because if you’re there all the time, you’re dealing with these judges all the time. If you’re a tenant, you’re there for the first time.” Canner told the Daily News that he has noticed that many NYCHA tenants feel so beaten down they won’t even go to court.

The New York Law Journal also reported on the contempt decision which described in detail Ms. Brown's extensive efforts to have her family's hot water restored before The Legal Aid Society represented her. In an interview with the Law Journal, Canner said "I think the decision expressed what it's like to be an unrepresented litigant in housing court."




New York Daily News
NYCHA pays $8 million so lawyers can bully poor residents in Housing Court
By Greg B. Smith
November 1, 2013

The New York City Housing Authority spends $8 million a year on lawyers — far more than it does on bricklayers or exterminators — to wage legal warfare against its 600,000 residents.

When tenants turn to the courts hoping to force the agency to fix long-standing decrepit conditions, they’re outgunned by one of 98 NYCHA attorneys who work on the taxpayers’ dime.

The Daily News asked Chairman John Rhea about the army of lawyers, but he declined comment through a spokeswoman.

Confronted outside his office on Thursday and later by phone, he offered a few token words in response to a front page story in The News detailing a single mom’s two-year legal battle to get hot water in her East Harlem apartment.

It’s a very unfortunate and unusual situation that left people without hot water for an extended period of time,” he said, without mentioning Cheryl Brown by name. “No New Yorker should have to live without hot water.”

A judge ordered NYCHA to pay Brown, 32, nearly $20,000. She says a NYCHA lawyer told her the agency was going to appeal.

The David and Goliath battles go on every day in Housing Court. Tenants make repair requests — for hot water, mold, faulty appliances — after the problems have lingered for months or years. When they try to fight in court for the repairs almost all of the tenants end up without a lawyer in front of a judge.

“It’s not one hand tied behind their back,” said Harvey Epstein of the Urban Justice Center. “It’s both hands tied behind their back.”

NYCHA, meanwhile, assigns a team of lawyers full-time to each borough court every day. Records show the lawyers are paid between $61,000 and $172,000. Again and again, tenants face off against these lawyers, who inevitably get cases postponed by promising that repairs are forthcoming.

The dizzying cycle repeats itself — even after judges order NYCHA to complete the repairs. In the end, most tenants simply give up and walk away, resigned to accepting substandard living conditions as the price of going to court without a lawyer.

Records obtained by The News show that as of March there were 8,051 pending court cases filed against NYCHA, including 2,534 in which the authority had yet to schedule the requested repairs.

Groups like Urban Justice, the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services often wind up representing tenants who’ve tried but failed to wage the NYCHA battle alone.

“In 99% of the cases, tenants are not represented by lawyers,” Epstein said. “NYCHA is always represented by their lawyers and they push back.”

NYCHA’s song is a familiar one, Epstein says.

“We need 90 days to get that fixed, or 120 days to get that fixed,” NYCHA lawyers will argue, according to Epstein. “They almost always get the cases adjourned, usually by promising that the repairs will get done.”

A nonprofit group called Housing Court Answers, which has information to help tenants without lawyers, sees dozens of NYCHA litigants in court every day.

On the second floor of Brooklyn Housing Court on Thursday, Housing Court Answers worker Norma Aviles says she fields about 10 cases each day of tenants trying to fight the fight.

“I see bad, bad cases,” she said. “A lot of people feel, because they pay low rent, that they don’t have rights. When it gets really bad, they come here. They bring pictures: mold, mushrooms on the walls. It’s bad.”

Maria Muentes, also of HCA, visits all the housing courts. She said it’s tough for tenants who work for a living to take on a court fight. “They’re often taking time off from work. Some people are not paid. It’s actually a time-consuming practice,” she said. “There’s not equality. NYCHA tenants are kind of held to a different standard.”

Judith Goldiner, of the Legal Aid Society of New York, said the tenants are no match for the lawyers who are “just there all the time. That’s kind of what makes it unfair, because if you’re there all the time, you’re dealing with these judges all the time. If you’re a tenant, you’re there for the first time.”

On rare occasions, justice works. In a stunning decision issued earlier this month, Manhattan Housing Court Judge Phyllis Saxe fined NYCHA $19,205 for taking two years to restore hot water for Brown, a single mom in the East River Houses who shared her story in The News on Thursday. The judge found NYCHA had deliberately lied about its efforts to restore hot water and repeatedly ignored “clear and unequivocal court orders to fix or restore the hot water.”

NYCHA told Brown’s attorney they intended to appeal, though authority spokesman Sheila Stainback would only say Thursday that the agency has “reserved our option to appeal.”

Rhea declined to discuss the appeal.

There are too many stories like Brown’s at the East Harlem complex. One tenant, a 37-year-old who works for an insurance firm, recalled her ordeal.

The woman, who spoke to The News on the condition of anonymity, says she first asked NYCHA to restore hot water to the apartment she shares with her 13-year-old son in September 2010.

She says NYCHA promised repeatedly to fix it but kept delaying the repairs. She began to withhold rent, hoping that would turn things around. Instead, she says, NYCHA managers threatened to evict her. “They would say the fact that you don’t have hot water doesn’t mean anything. You still have to pay rent.”

She finally ventured to Housing Court and found herself before Judge Saxe. The agency’s lawyers promised the judge repeatedly the problem would be resolved, but it was not.

'In 99% of the cases, tenants are not represented by lawyers,' Harvey Epstein of the Urban Justice Center says. 'NYCHA is always represented by their lawyers and they push back.'

Then Saxe noticed the woman kept showing up: “She saw me there a few times. She said you need legal counsel.”

Alan Canner, of the Legal Aid Society’s Harlem Community Law office, took her case and moved to hold NYCHA in contempt. “She went to court a million times and they just kept saying they’ll fix it and they didn’t fix it,” he said. “They’re not very good with the repairs. You have to hit them over the head. You have to go to court to get the repair.”

NYCHA finally fixed the hot water in February, but Canner is now asking Saxe for damages similar to the fine awarded to Brown, whom he also represents.

Over the years, Canner says he has noticed that many NYCHA tenants feel so beaten down they won’t even go to court.

But Canner’s client, whose lawsuit is pending, thinks the fight is worth it.




New York Daily News
Judge hits NYCHA with $20K fine after single mom was left without hot water for two years
By Rich Schapiro , Greg B. Smith AND Dareh Gregorian
Thursday, October 31, 2013

NYCHA left a single mother of three without hot water for more than two years — and now shamelessly plans to appeal the nearly $20,000 fine a Manhattan judge ordered it pay her.

The jurist lashed out at New York City Housing Authority bureaucrats, including Chairman John Rhea, for making Cheryl Brown and her children suffer without hot water while repeatedly ignoring orders to fix it.

When confronted Wednesday night at his luxurious Harlem apartment building, Rhea refused to address the decrepit conditions Cheryl Brown lived in for two years.

In a blistering ruling, Manhattan Housing Court Judge Phyllis Saxe found NYCHA in contempt of court and fined it $19,205 for making Brown and her children struggle without hot water in their East Harlem apartment.

“NYCHA repeatedly disobeyed and disregarded clear and unequivocal court orders to fix or restore the hot water in Ms. Brown’s apartment,” Saxe wrote.

She singled out East River Houses building manager Clara Pabon, who admitted she “buried” the transfer to another apartment because Brown was behind in her rent and said she determined the water was hot enough.

Probably most infuriating to the court was Ms. Pabon’s flippant and disingenuous testimony wherein she unilaterally decided that the hot water had been fixed in 2011 because she ran her hand under the water for a few minutes,” the judge wrote, calling her testimony “disturbing.”

Brown, 32, told the Daily News Wednesday: “It was not something anybody could have fixed except for NYCHA and they chose not to.

“It was infuriating listening to some of the testimony because they kind of made it seem like it was my fault.”

Even after forcing Brown to undergo daily hardship, the agency informed Brown’s lawyer it planned to appeal the decision and doesn’t want to pay her the money.

Saxe was so irate at the agency — whose repeated failures such as taking years to make basic repairs or install security cameras after millions of dollars were alotted have been exposed by The News — that the judge indicated she would have considered finding Rhea in contempt if not for technicalities.

Brown’s lawyer, Alan Canner, said he would asked the judge to hold Rhea, a former Lehman Brothers investment banker, accountable because “he’s the head of the whole thing. He knew or should have known that several buildings in that NYCHA development didn’t have hot water for two years. I can’t believe he didn’t know that.”

Saxe denied that request but she still gave the agency both barrels for the indifference it showed to Brown.

By refusing to fix the problem, NYCHA executives acted “with clear disregard for the court orders issued here but even more importantly they ignored the health and safety of their tenant, Ms. Brown, and severely diminished her quality of life,” Saxe wrote in the Oct. 17 ruling.

Brown’s ordeal in the East River Houses started in October 2010, around the time she was splitting from her husband. That’s when she first had problems with the hot water. By December, there wasn’t any hot water at all.

The then-pregnant mom said she had to get up at 6 a.m. each day to boil pots of water so her two kids could take baths in the morning, and the process took hours.

A couple times, I scalded my feet with hot water because I was pregnant and clumsy,” she said.

She even had to boil water to do the dishes — and after her daughter Noah was born, it got to be too much at times.

“I didn’t want to cook. And we started getting a roach problem because the dishes would stay in the sink because I couldn’t wash them,” the mom said.

The judge found that although the mom “did her best . . . it became obvious after a while that they all stopped taking regular baths.”

Her 7- and 11-year-old kids’ school “noticed their dirty condition, and Ms. Brown was forced to explain to school personnel about the lack of hot water,” the ruling says. Her older daughter was just beginning to hit puberty, and didn’t want to go to school because she was afraid she smelled, the ruling says.

Inspectors came to the apartment five times and each time the water was less than 110 degrees.

Brown finally struck a deal with NYCHA in July 2011, where the agency agreed to fix her hot water immediately and move her to a bigger apartment — but the agency did neither.

Brown meanwhile, continued to struggle without hot water — and Pabon essentially ignored her complaints, the ruling says. The manager went to Brown’s apartment in December of 2011, tested the water, determined it was hot enough, and callously left, the ruling says.

In the meantime, NYCHA discovered there was a “complex-wide issue” at the East River Houses with the “shower bodies” — devices that are meant to regulate water temperatures, court papers show.

After a year of complaints from Brown and others, NYCHA hired plumbers to investigate the problem, and they determined that all the shower bodies had to be replaced. But the agency refused to pony up to replace the $140 parts — and Brown was told she couldn’t pay for it herself.

She filed a new action against NYCHA — but the agency continued to ignore orders to fix the problem, the ruling says.

It was finally fixed this past Valentine’s Day.

Brown, who moved to a different residence earlier this year, said she doubts she’ll ever see the money from NYCHA, but was grateful to Saxe for the help.

“I was glad that at least this particular judge saw that I wasn’t crazy because there were times when I did feel like I was actually losing my mind,” she said.

She said there are people who live in public housing “who do care. People who want to be treated like human beings. People who want to live as best as they can with what they have.”

The chronically cash-strapped Housing Authority has been taken to court repeatedly for its huge backlog of repair requests.

A spokeswoman for the agency declined comment.




New York Law Journal
Housing Agency Penalized for Failing to Restore Hot Water
By Brendan Pierson
October 30, 2013

A Housing Court judge has ordered the New York City Housing Authority to pay more than $19,000 in civil contempt penalties for failing to restore hot water to a tenant's apartment for over two years.

Housing Court Judge Phyllis Saxe (See Profile) ruled on Oct. 17 in Brown v. NYCHA, 1885/10 and 116/12, that NYCHA acted "contumaciously" and without regard for the tenant's health in failing to make the necessary repairs, which had been repeatedly ordered by the court.

The tenant, Cheryl Brown, lives in the East River Houses, an NYCHA project in East Harlem, with her three children.

In December 2010, Brown filed an action in Housing Court seeking to compel NYCHA to restore hot water to her apartment. She was not represented by counsel.

In January 2011, Brown and NYCHA settled, with NYCHA agreeing to restore hot water immediately, as well as to repair and re-plaster a damaged wall. However, in February 2011, Brown moved for compliance and civil penalties, saying that NYCHA still had not restored hot water.

Housing Court Judge Sabrina Kraus (See Profile) ordered NYCHA to restore hot water, and ruled that Brown could move for contempt if it did not.

Brown moved for contempt in May 2011. In July 2011, however, Brown entered into another settlement with NYCHA. She agreed to withdraw her contempt motion with prejudice, and NYCHA agreed to transfer her to the next available apartment of the appropriate size in Manhattan, provided she met NYCHA's usual criteria for transfer. Brown was still not represented by counsel when she agreed to the settlement.

In January 2012, Brown filed a new action in Housing Court. She had not been transferred, and said she still did not have hot water, a claim confirmed by a report from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Despite repeated orders in 2012 from Housing Court Judge Verna Saunders (See Profile), Brown alleges she never got hot water.

Brown's two Housing Court actions were consolidated before Saxe. In February 2013, represented by counsel for the first time, Brown moved for civil and criminal contempt against NYCHA.

At the contempt hearing, Brown testified that in mid-February she finally got hot water. However, she said that for most of the past two years, she had been forced to boil huge pots of water to bathe her children. That included several months in 2011 when she was pregnant with her third child, who was born in March 2011.

Despite her efforts, she said, the children were not able to bathe regularly.

Two HPD inspectors testified, confirming that they had found no hot water in December 2010 and in January 2012.

Two NYCHA employees testified that they had been aware of complaints about hot water in the building in 2011. One NYCHA employee said that the problem began when the complex's conventional water heaters were replaced by instantaneous water heaters, a more economical technology.

The employee said that NYCHA concluded all the shower bodies needed to be replaced in 2012, but initially replaced them in only one building in the complex. They did not repair the other buildings, including Brown's, until early 2013.

The manager of the East River Houses, Clara Pabon, also testified that she went to Brown's apartment with the superintendent in 2011 and found that there was hot water. However, she stayed for less than 10 minutes and did not check how long the hot water lasted.

Pabon also said that she initially approved Brown's transfer request, but then "administratively buried" it because Brown owed back rent.

In making her finding of contempt, Saxe first held that the 2011 stipulation, in which Brown agreed to dismiss her contempt motion with prejudice, could not be enforced because Brown was not represented by counsel, and NYCHA's purported promise to relocate her was "indefinite, illusory and basically precatory."

Saxe ruled that civil contempt was warranted because NYCHA "repeatedly disobeyed and disregarded clear and unequivocal court orders."

By failing to fix the problem once it knew what repairs were necessary in 2012, Saxe wrote, NYCHA "acted contumaciously and with clear disregard for the court orders issued here but even more importantly they ignored the health and safety of the tenant, Ms. Brown, and severely diminished her quality of life."

"Probably most infuriating to the court was Ms. Pabon's flippant and disingenuous testimony wherein she unilaterally decided that the hot water had been fixed in 2011 because she ran her hand under the water for a few minutes and did not receive any more complaints from Ms. Brown," the judge wrote.

Saxe held NYCHA and Pabon in contempt for $19,205. The sum was calculated by ordering NYCHA to pay $25 for every day when Brown was pregnant, $30 for every day after it knew what repair was necessary but failed to do it and $20 a day for the interim.

Brown is represented by Alan Canner of The Legal Aid Society.

"I think the judge wrote an excellent decision," Canner said. "I think the decision expressed what it's like to be an unrepresented litigant in Housing Court."

NYCHA is represented by Anna Fortgang, an attorney with the agency. NYCHA could not be reached for comment.