Yesterday I spent an hour in Housing Court. While I was waiting for the judge to sign something I needed, I watched and listened to what was going on. Listening proved to be more interesting and informative than reading the newspapers I had with me.
First, I need to explain that petitions to Housing Court are, as far as I know, always done pro se, i.e., “for oneself” — by the person affected, not by his or her lawyer. In fact, as I see it, Housing Court functions as a sort of people’s court: it exists to help laymen get some justice and its pre-assumption is that the layman doesn’t have and can’t afford a lawyer. So Housing Court, its clerks and officials work hard to make the process comprehensive to someone who knows nothing about law.
Indeed, at least one lawyer from the City agency HPD — Housing Preservation and Development — is in court to represent their agency who has, in effect, joined the petitioner in his complaint. So the HPD lawyers offer a quality of representation to the petitioner, i.e., they tell us what to do, where to go, take our paperwork, what the process will be. They explain. They don’t offer legal advice or defense, but to a neophyte in Housing Court, they are a great comfort; they help us feel less clumsy and ignorant.
The two incidents I witnessed involved real people, i.e., laymen with grievances. A languorous young man went up to the court deputy to talk about his case. The deputy told him he was too late, that his appearance date (she showed him the paperwork) had been scheduled for a few days’ previously. He protested. She was firm: he’d missed his court date. She told him he’d have to start the entire process all over again. He argued loudly, was told to lower his voice. Eventually he stomped out, distraught and angry.
The second incident occurred before the judge. The petitioner, whose petition protested housing maintenance violations in the building where he lived, sat at the table in front of the judge. The HPD lawyer was also at the table, as was a representative (maybe a lawyer) for the petitioner’s landlord.
The judge told the man he was denying his petition. There were two reasons: first, he had mailed his petition (we laymen are carefully instructed to mail our petitions by a certain date, by certified mail, return receipt requested) to the wrong address. He had addressed it to “Park Avenue,” but the landlord’s correct address was Park Avenue South.
The second reason for the judge’s denial? The certified mail receipt, stamped by the post office, was dated a day after the petitioner was told he had to serve. He was late. He had missed the deadline.
So both petitioners missed specified deadlines and their cases were dismissed. One had to come to court on a certain date, but hadn’t. The other had to mail something by a certain date, but didn’t.
This is why deadlines are so important. Assume your case will be thrown out because you did not respect the date a court gave you.
Let me add that I had been told I had to mail my certified letter by Tuesday April 3. I had a few days in which to do it. I left the court at 1 pm, went home, prepared the envelope and went immediately to the post office to beat the deadline.