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Recent Changes in New York Landlord-Tenant Laws Due to COVID-19 Temporarily Halt Evictions Until May 2021

Author: Rachael Marvin

Guest Editor: Ashley Kaye

February 9, 2021 9:00am

Background

Under New York property law, a landlord may bring a special proceeding to remove tenants who continue to occupy the premises without permission after the lease term is over.[1]  This provides New York state courts with broad authority to remove holdover tenants.[2]  However, recent Executive Orders issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Administrative Orders issued by the Chief Administrative Judge in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have sharply limited New York courts’ abilities to entertain eviction proceedings.[3]  On May 22, 2020, the Chief Administrative Judge ordered courts not accept any filings except in essential matters, which did not specifically include holdover eviction proceedings.[4]  Therefore, it was up to the Supreme Courts (New York state trial courts) to determine whether such landlord-tenant disputes constituted essential matters.

Even if the law considers an eviction proceeding an “essential matter,” tenants are now protected from eviction if they are facing financial hardship.[5]  Specifically, the Tenant Safe Harbor Act (“TSHA”), Executive Order No. 202, and the Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2020 now prevent the execution or enforcement of eviction warrants for residential tenants suffering from financial hardship due to COVID-19.[6]  This safe harbor protects tenants until at least May 1, 2021, and may protect them longer if the New York legislature deems necessary.[7]  As a result, New York courts are now dealing with two key issues: 1) whether they have the ability to hear eviction proceedings, and 2) whether they can actually enforce outstanding eviction warrants.

In Matter of Cabrera v. Humphrey, New York’s Appellate Division, Third Department determined a dispute involving the potential eviction of holdover tenants constituted an essential matter when the new occupants would otherwise be left homeless.[8]  In this case, the landlord orally agreed to rent a residence to the tenants on a month-to-month basis, on the condition the tenants would vacate the premises within 30 days if the landlord secured a purchaser for the residence.[9]  On June 15, 2020, the landlord notified the tenants of a purchaser, and they agreed to vacate by July 15, 2020.[10]  However, the tenants failed to vacate the premises and continued to reside there through September 2020.[11]  This caused closing to be delayed and prevented the new homeowners from moving in.[12]  The landlord then brought a summary eviction proceeding seeking a warrant of eviction to remove the tenants.[13]  The New York Supreme Court in Sullivan County accepted the proceeding as an essential matter, because the new homeowners had relinquished their former home in anticipation of closing on the property.[14]  The Supreme Court ultimately enforced the warrant of eviction.[15]

On appeal, the Appellate Division, Third Department reversed the decision.[16]  The Third Department found changes in the law prohibited the Supreme Court from enforcing the warrant of eviction.[17]  Although the Supreme Court had repeatedly stated the tenants had not claimed a financial hardship, the tenants produced affidavits at a later appearance showing they experienced financial hardship during the COVID-19 covered period.[18]  Regarding the financial hardship defense, the TSHA provides:

“[N]o court shall issue a warrant of eviction or judgement of possession against a residential tenant or other lawful occupant that has suffered a financial hardship during the COVID-19 covered period for the non-payment of rent that accrues or becomes due during the COVID-19 covered period.”[19]

Further, Executive Order 202.66 modified the TSHA “to the extent necessary to prevent, for any residential tenant suffering financial hardship during the COVID-19 state disaster emergency, the execution or enforcement of such judgment or warrant, including those cases where a warrant of eviction for a residential property was granted prior to March 7, 2021, through January 1, 2021.”[20]  Therefore, the Third Department held because this Executive Order prohibits the enforcement of residential evictions without any exceptions for holdover proceedings or eviction warrants issued, the Supreme Court was precluded from evicting the tenants at this time.[21]

Takeaway

Recent changes to landlord-tenant laws in New York have created a new defense in holdover eviction proceedings if the tenant suffers financial hardship during the COVID-19 covered period.[22]  This means it will be harder to evict tenants who validly claim a financial hardship defense through May 1, 2021.  However, Matter of Cabrera v. Humphrey emphasizes landlord-tenant laws are consistently evolving due to COVID-19, and eviction warrants could be enforced starting mid-2021, depending on the legislature’s ongoing response to the pandemic.

[1] See NY CLS RAPL § 711[1]; see also Liberty Equity Restoration Corp. v. Pil Soung Park, 129 A.D.3d 787, 789 (Second Dept. 2015).

[2] See In re Estate of Piccione, 57 N.Y.2d 278, 290 (Ct. App. 1982).

[3] See Executive Orders [Cuomo] No. 8 [9 NYCRR § 8.202.8]; No. 66 [9 NYCRR § 8.202.66]; cited by Matter of Cabrera v. Humphrey, 2021 NY Slip Op 00358 at *2 (Third Dept. 2021).

[4] See Admin Orders of Chief Administrative Judge of Courts AO/68/20; AO/160A/20; cited by Matter of Cabrera v. Humphrey, 2021 NY Slip Op 00358 at *2.

[5] See Emergency Eviction and Foreclosure Act of 2020 (L 2020, Ch. 381); cited by Matter of Cabrera v. Humphrey, 2021 NY Slip Op 00358 at *4-5.

[6] See Matter of Cabrera v. Humphrey, 2021 NY Slip Op 00358 at *3.

[7] See id.

[9] See id. at *1.

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

[13] See id. at *2.

[14] See id. at *2-3.

[15] See id. at *2.

[16] See id. at *3.

[17] See id. at *3-4.

[18] See id. at *4.

[19] See id. at *3-4.

[20] See id.

[21] See id. at *4-5.

[22] See id.at *3-4.

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