Last week, dozens of tenants in Staten Island who were facing eviction received what should have been routine court notices about their legal rights in the mail. But the mandatory memos — sent to tenants by the office of landlord lawyer Nichole E. Lee — had one significant and very unauthorized change: a sentence explaining that tenants may have additional rights due to COVID-19 was rewritten to describe the pandemic as the “Chinese Wuhan virus emergency.” These memos should be a formality for a lawyer like Lee: The language, which comes from the court, reads the same for every eviction. It simply needs to be attached to the eviction notice. So what happened was especially shocking; there was no need to alter the notice in any way. After spotting the change, dismayed attorneys at the Staten Island office of the Legal Aid Society reached out to housing-court officials, and Judge Anthony Cannataro dismissed the roster of cases just two days later.
Officially, the judge threw out the evictions because the notices didn’t properly explain that the tenant may be able to raise pandemic-specific defenses in court and should contact a lawyer. The subtext, of course, was that the inserted language is blatantly bigoted.
Notices with the xenophobic language — in both English and Spanish — were sent out by Lee’s office to at least 35 tenants, according to a review of the eviction filings first reported by Law360. Teresa DeFonso, who is in charge of the Society’s Staten Island office and who notified officials, said her immediate concern was that tenants would assume that racist language came directly from the court. “The court needed to know what was being said in their name, basically,” she said.
The swift dismissal of these 40 cases is only a momentary win for the tenants involved, as the evictions can (and almost certainly will) be refiled with the proper, unaltered paperwork. DeFonso’s assumption is that Lee is responsible for the language change, but the incident is currently under investigation by the Office of Court Administration. (Lee did not return multiple calls for comment.) For now, these tenants will be able to remain in their homes during a pandemic, and all because a lawyer likely went out of their way to make a racist political point.