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Brooklyn Court Quietly Moves to Toss Out Hundreds of Foreclosure Cases

By Amy Zimmer | May 8, 2017 4:39pm
 Legal aid attorneys say the Brooklyn Courts' plan to dismiss cases could hurt owners facing foreclosure.
Legal aid attorneys say the Brooklyn Courts' plan to dismiss cases could hurt owners facing foreclosure.
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BROOKLYN — Kings County Supreme Court is about to quietly dismiss thousands of foreclosure cases on Tuesday — in what lawyers say will deal a severe blow to homeowners with pending cases.

The court said it planned to dismiss all cases filed before Jan. 1, 2016 that have seen no court activity after Sept. 30, 2016.  It quietly published a notice of the administrative dismissal in the New York Law Journal on Thursday, April 27, giving parties until Monday, May 1 to contact the court to keep their cases alive.

Foreclosure defense lawyers say that while it might seem like a good thing for foreclosure cases to be dismissed, it would in fact be extremely negative for homeowners battling lenders. For one, all of the motions a homeowner had filed taking issue with the lenders' claims would be lost. In addition, many of the delays could be due to the lenders dragging their feet, lawyers say, but dismissing the case without fault to either side would allow the lenders to relaunch their case with a blank slate.

In addition, lawyers say that it’s highly unlikely that most of the self-representing owners would have seen the notice buried in the “Court Notes” on page 11 of the journal last month.

“None of the homeowners received actual notice of this calendar call. They have legal defenses and rights they are going to lose,” said K. Scott Kohanowski, director of foreclosure prevention and LGBT advocacy projects at the City Bar Justice Center.

Kohanowski said the foreclosure action is also a racial justice issue since it disproportionately affects communities of color that are affected by the foreclosure crisis.

Many legal aid attorneys plan to pack the courtroom on Tuesday, trying to assist as many homeowners as they can, and Public Advocate Letitia James is calling on the court system to stop the action.

“I am extremely troubled by Kings County Supreme Court's tactless plan to dismiss these civil action cases,” said Public Advocate Letitia James. “In an effort to eliminate backlog the court is in fact undermining due process to some of our most vulnerable New Yorkers who rely on the courts to secure justice. The implications of this action will harm thousands of lives and I urge them to immediately cancel the ineffective and inappropriate ‘dismissal calendar’ and to prioritize justice for New Yorkers who need us most.”

She wrote a letter Monday to the Office of Court Administration asking it to cancel the dismissal action.

She also asked that if it were to be rescheduled, then notice must be sent to all parties with at least 30 days advance notice, along with information about free legal services that can help respond to the dismissal.

In the letter, she stated, "This is especially troubling given the context of rapid gentrification in Brooklyn neighborhoods heavily impacted by the foreclosure crisis.”

The Office of Court Administration received the public advocate's letter and is reviewing it, according to spokesman Lucian Chalfen.

"This is an effort to expunge dead cases," he said.  "As we continue to work on case backlogs, we rely on accurate data so we know where to focus our resources. Notice regarding these administrative dismissals was widely disseminated through the New York Law Journal and approximately 40 bar associations. In addition, should a litigant want the case restored, it can be without prejudice."

There will be roughly 6,500 cases dismissed under the court action — 1,600 of which are foreclosures — according to officials from the Office of Court Administration.

Despite the May 1 cut-off date posted in the journal, cases could still be restored without further action, Chalfen said.

Lawyers have complained that since the Brooklyn courts were reorganized more than a year ago to consolidate foreclosure cases — whittling the 25 judges previously assigned to handling such cases down to just four judges — the reforms seem to focus more on resolving cases quickly to clear the backlog than considering the facts of the case and giving homeowners a fair hearing.

Advocates have called this approach “the Rocket Docket,” saying the process harms homeowners, especially those representing themselves in court.

But OCA officials said the streamlining is a good thing.

"They are being dealt with by dedicated judges in an organized and efficient manner," Chalfen said.

Foreclosures in Brooklyn, particularly the eastern part of the borough, have been rising since the height of the financial crisis, according to a February report by PropertyShark. Overall, foreclosure cases represent about 26 percent of total cases in the Brooklyn court system, according to legal experts. 

In 2016, 417 homes in the borough were scheduled for auction for the first time, compared to 176 in 2012, the site found. Nearly 3,700 homeowners received a notice of pre-foreclosure in 2016. Half of the new foreclosures were concentrated in five ZIP codes, covering Canarsie, Flatlands, East New York and East Flatbush.