Statement of Legal Services Staff Association and the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys Opposing the Premature and Dangerous Opening of New York City Courts

July 9, 2020

For immediate release

The unions representing attorneys and legal workers providing civil legal services to New York City’s low-income residents condemn the Office of Court Administration’s (OCA’s) decision to resume in-person trials to evict tenants in Brooklyn Housing Court beginning on July 27th. Under OCA’s plan, tenants, attorneys, court officers, judges, and other court personnel will be crammed into Brooklyn housing court for trials on pending matters. OCA stated that Housing Court trials will soon take place in the other boroughs as well.

Physically reopening housing court will actively harm our clients, especially Black and Brown New Yorkers, by forcing our clients to choose between their health and their homes. This is particularly premature now, when legal service providers and the unions whose members risk their lives by coming to court have not been given an opportunity to weigh in about the safety of reopening. Many of our members have contracted the virus, and several court players including paralegals, judges, and court officers have died from COVID-19. This action by OCA is glaringly irresponsible.

Across the city, Black and Latinx New Yorkers have already died and are continuing to die from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white New Yorkers. Communities in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens are still ravaged by infection rates over 50%. Three communities in the Bronx have a 50% infection rate and the Bronx Housing Court is located between two “hot spots,” Morissania (43%) and Highbridge (38%). The Office of Court Administration (OCA) has failed to provide all court staff and tenants a thorough COVID-19 safety plan since the onset of the pandemic.

“OCA’s misguided plan to prematurely resume in-person court appearances puts lives at risk,” said Sonja Shield, President of the Legal Services Staff Association, NOLSW/UAW 2320. “It is not safe to take the subway or to be in poorly ventilated indoor courthouses. This will subject New York’s tenants to potential illness or death and does violence to Black and brown communities. We reject this dangerous plan and will not cooperate with any attempt to open the courts before it is safe to do so.”

“There is no reason to move forward with trials during a global pandemic. This gift to the landlord’s bar is horrible public policy and it will put litigants, our members, and court staff at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19,” said Jared Trujillo, President of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW 2325. “There’s a Black Lives Matter mural being painted in front of Trump Tower right now. But do we really value black lives when we are sending low-income predominately Black and brown tenants into an unsafe housing court so that it’s easier to evict them?”

We stand with the tenant movement, with Black and Brown communities, and with poor, working class, and immigrant New Yorkers and demand that housing courts remain closed. We will not physically appear in court while the pandemic continues to threaten us and the communities we work with, and we call on OCA to keep the courts physically closed until a vaccine is widely available. We stand in solidarity with any and all court workers who refuse to physically return to court at the expense of their health and safety.