The union representing city attorneys say that lawyers assigned to the Department of Buildings have been inundated with cases, including numerous ones that are not winnable.
The Civil Service Bar Association, which has about 1,000 members, says the workload is such that the 30 DOB lawyers often work through their lunch hours to keep up on caseloads. The torrent has left the attorneys minimal time to prepare for those cases that merit attention, the union says.
CSBA officials said the pattern has continued despite promises from DOB leadership to ease the workload, which the union noted included an excess of cases that place unfair burdens on smaller landlords by obliging them to either pay fines or hire legal counsel to fight insignificant cases—at the expense of matters involving larger companies whose violations are more-egregious.
“The department is going for easy finds,” such as improper washing-machine hookups, CSBA Business Agent Abbie Gorin said during a recent interview. “Rather than focus their efforts on big people, they're multiplying fines against small people...They’re grabbing whatever finds they can.”
He said that efforts by the CSBA president, Saul Fishman, and himself to quell attorney discontent by having the DOB adjust how it pursues cases were rebuffed by Commissioner Melanie La Rocca at the outset of her tenure in May 2019.
Mr. Gorin said that a proposal from he and Mr. Fishman that the DOB institute an alternative-sentencing program pioneered by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which they said had an over-90-percent non-recidivist rate, was dismissed.
“She stopped us dead in our tracks and said, ‘don’t expect any changes from me,’ ” the union official said.
DOB Cites 'Multiple' Meetings
The DOB called the union’s contentions exaggerated at best, saying that Ms. La Rocca and senior department staff have met with CSBA officials “multiple times,” including three times in the last 18 months, to discuss those issues.
According to the agency, most of the smaller violations issued by department inspectors that do not pose an immediate danger are eligible for a so-called CURE process, which gives property owners the ability to fix the condition without having to respond in court and without incurring fines.
The department last month also started a new program that allows owners of one- and two-family homes who have not received violations at the property in question in the preceding five years to correct conditions before getting a notice of a violation and associated fines.
“Our top priority at DOB is to protect the safety of our fellow New Yorkers. The work of every unit in the Department, including the efforts of our dedicated attorneys, is critical to this life-preserving mission,” a DOB spokesman, Andrew Rudansky, said in an email.
He pushed back on the union’s contentions that agency attorneys were dealing with excessive caseloads and dismissed allegations that they were compelled to work through their lunch hours. Mr. Rudansky said that despite requests for documentation of any such instances, none have been forthcoming. He said that attorneys working overtime or through lunch breaks should and would be paid for that time.
“We do not believe that any single unit in the Department is tasked with an unreasonable burden of work,” Mr. Rudansky said.
Former Lawyer Dissents
But one former attorney at the department said the DOB was so badly mismanaged that attorneys were left to fumble through cases, often without vital documentation and sufficient case-prep time.
Brian Nettle, who worked at the agency from October 2019 through mid-August, said the chief reason he left the DOB was because of “the inability to present our cases adequately,” in part because the department’s record-keeping databases were severely deficient for attorneys’ purposes.
He cited a recent morning when he was given a caseload of more than a dozen summonses involving five or six different locations—for which he had 30 minutes to prepare. That half-hour was barely enough time to download the needed documentation, Mr. Nettle said.
“It was like I was working where nobody cared about liability whatsoever. It was wild,” he said.
Lost Entire Case Files
Although the ability to confer in person with witnesses and others was understandably upended by the pandemic, when everything went remote, DOB did little to nothing to address the resulting shortcomings, he said. Paperwork, including entire evidence files, was “lost.”
Mr. Nettle, who intends to litigate public-interest matters, said that management from the Department’s Administrative Enforcement Unit, which enforces compliance with the city’s relevant building codes, did little to resolve those shortcomings and declined to meet with concerned attorneys, including himself.
“Nobody was taking responsibility for anything, at a minimal level,” he said.
Mr. Rudansky, though, said the department had made a number of significant improvements in the last 18 months to allow its attorneys to work diligently and successfully from home.
“Our internal databases are more than adequate to prepare for remote OATH hearings, as evidenced by the high success rate of our dedicated attorneys in the courtroom,” which he said in an email was about 80 percent for department-issued violations at OATH.
Above photo courtesy of Department of Buildings
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