New York Landlords Lose Challenge to Eviction Moratorium

Dogs greet each other on a street in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen on May 29, after the street was blocked off from traffic to let residents gather in open spaces with some social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

(CN) — New Yorkers with trouble making rent during the coronavirus pandemic have a couple more months of breathing room, with a federal judge upholding Governor Andrew Cuomo’s eviction moratorium on Monday.

“The world is navigating the deadliest pandemic in over a century,” Chief U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon wrote in the grim opening lines of her 37-page ruling. “Presently, the United States has suffered more than any other country, reporting over two million cases of the novel coronavirus known as Covid-19, and over 120,000 deaths as a result. Among the fifty states, New York has experienced the highest number of cases, with nearly 400,000 cases and 25,000 dead.”

As New York grappled with massive unemployment, Governor Cuomo issued an order forbidding landlords from opening up eviction proceedings for three months, relief he later extended until Aug. 20. 

Three Westchester-based landlords — Elmsford Apartment Associates LLC, 36 Apartment Associates LLC and 66 Apartment Associates J.V. — brought a federal complaint alleging that Cuomo’s order violates the takings and due-process clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Judge McMahon found no such violation by the governor during a time of national emergency.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that a state does not commit a physical taking when it restricts the circumstances in which tenants may be evicted,” McMahon wrote, citing the case of Yee v. City of Escondido, where a California city’s municipal rent-control ordinance was challenged.

Even if the landlords had a viable claim, Judge McMahon found, they chose the wrong court to file it.

“Federal courts do not have the power to address claims that Governor Cuomo has violated state law,” McMahon ruled.

“While it may be the case that governor has overstepped his authority under New York’s Executive Law, curing those alleged harms would require this Court to ignore the doctrine of state sovereign immunity and principles of federalism embodied in the Eleventh Amendment,” the opinion continues.

But McMahon also found against the landlords on the substance of their allegations.

“The eviction moratorium does not eliminate the suite of contractual remedies available to the plaintiffs; it merely postpones the date on which landlords may commence summary proceedings against their tenants,” the opinion states. “The tenants are still bound to their contracts, and the landlord may obtain a judgment for unpaid rent if the tenants fail to honor their obligations. Furthermore, on August 20, this Court is sure that plaintiffs and others similarly situated will exercise their rights to commence eviction proceedings to make up for lost time. That being so, the implied right to such legal process has not been impaired by the order.”

McMahon additionally upheld a separate provision of the executive order that lets tenants use their security deposits in lieu of rental payments during the time of the eviction moratorium.

New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office and the landlords’ attorney Mark Guterman did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment.

A month earlier, Judge McMahon denied the landlords temporary relief and put the case on the fast track, finding no need for factual discovery in a case involving purely legal questions.

U.S. unemployment still remains enormous from virus-related layoffs. That rate shot up to 14.5% in April, the highest ever recorded in the state’s 44-year history.

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