Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

You're on an older version of the site, please click here to view the current site

Gotham Gazette -- Taking The Ugly Out Of The Voting Process Gotham Gazette Gotham Gazette

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

You're on an older version of the site, please click here to view the current site


Protection for Abuse Victims

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
Loading

Metro North Owners LLC v Sonya Thorpe appears, at first, to be a typical New York City landlord-tenant case. But it has resulted in an atypical dismissal of the eviction proceeding in New York City Housing Court.

Metro North Owners LLC, the landlord of 420 East 102nd Street in Manhattan, had charged the tenant, Sonya Thorpe, who receives federal rent subsidizes under the federal Section 8 housing program, with violating her lease and so sought to remove her as a nuisance. The "nuisance" involved an alleged stabbing in the building in April 2008.

The tenant's lawyer, Gretchen Gonzalez of the Legal Aid Society, moved to dismiss the case without a trial or any testimony, arguing that there were no questions of fact to be resolved at a trial and that the law required dismissal of the eviction proceedings at the pretrial stage. Under the federal Violence Against Women Act, a victim of domestic violence cannot be evicted from public housing or government assisted tenancies on the basis of the violence against her. In other words, Congress intended that a person should not be punished ñ evicted ñ for being victimized by a member of her family, household or someone with whom she has an intimate relationship.

An Abusive Relationship

Gonzalez asked the court to consider the entire history of Thorpe's relationship and the domestic violence perpetrated against her by John Capers, variously referred to as her husband or boyfriend. In addition to Thorpe's own affidavit, detailing the relationship and pattern of assaults, her case cited police complaints she made against Capers in 2006 and 2007 and a prior order of protection prohibiting him from approaching, threatening or harming her.

Her affidavit gave this account which the judge accepted: "An intoxicated and disheveled Capers arrived at her apartment and, despite her telling him to leave, forced his way into her apartment and assaulted her. During the assault, Capers threw respondent into a bathroom cabinet, causing glass to shatter on both of them, and Capers injured himself on the glass."

To further establish that Thorpe was not the aggressor and had not stabbed Capers, but was the victim of domestic violence, her counsel also submitted documentary evidence that the district attorney had declined to prosecute her in connection with the alleged stabbing.

Still, the landlord introduced an affidavit from the property manager of the 102nd Street building, charging that Thorpe "stabbed Capers," that she allowed him into the building, and that the violent behavior put other residents at risk.

Housing Court Judge Gerald Lebovits dismissed that affidavit as well as a report from a security guard as inadmissible evidence. Both, he found, were based on hearsay statements containing information about which they had no personal knowledge and which were unsubstantiated by, for example, affidavits from neighbors or other eyewitnesses. Neither the manager nor guard had witnessed the April incident or knew anything about it except what other, unidentified people told them.

"Nowhere in Velette's [the manager] affidavit or in petitioner's opposing papers as a whole is any evidence that the prior disputes were the fault of or initiated by respondent," Lebovits wrote. With no evidence, he continued, Metro North Owners "ultimately bases all its allegations that respondent is a nuisance and a threat to the tenants of the subject premises on inadmissible hearsay and prior, ambiguous, unspecific, undated acts."

However, the judge noted that even if he found those submissions legally admissible, which he did not, he would nevertheless have ordered the proceeding dismissed since the landlord still would not have overcome the tenant's evidence that she was a victim of domestic violence, that the incident arose from domestic violence and that she therefore was protected by the Violence Against Women Act.

Patterns of Violence

In dismissing the case, Lebovits cited scholarly journals, and referred to the "battered woman syndrome," which has been used as a defense in homicide cases when the accused is a victim of domestic violence who has killed her assailant. Borrowing the language of an appellate criminal case, he described the syndrome as "a series of common characteristics found in women who are abused both physically and emotionally by the dominant male figures in their lives over a prolonged length of time."

Thorpe's seemingly "inconsistent behavior toward Capers, in having any contact with him, even if true, the judge wrote, characterizes a battered woman."

Dorchen Leidhodt, director of Sanctuary for Families' Center for Battered Women's Legal Services, said, "We have encountered a number of cases like this one in which landlords have attempted to evict domestic violence victims on the theory that the violence perpetrated against them constituted a violation of the terms of the lease, in effect holding the victim responsible for the violence committed against her and intensifying the instability and economic hardship in her and her children's lives. The sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and of victims' psychology reflected in Judge Lebovits' decision is rarely seen outside of the context of criminal law."

Once Lebovits found that the landlord had failed to raise enough doubts about whether respondent was a victim or aggressor to go to trial, he concluded, "The court finds that respondent was a victim of domestic violence. As such, the Violence Against Women Act forbids petitioner to terminate respondent's Section 8 tenancy."

The landlord was represented by Gutman, Mintz, Baker & Sonnenfeldt, P.C. According to Neil Sonnenfeldt the client has not decided whether to appeal. When asked about the law in this case, he declined to discuss it and hung up the phone.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice



Your Voice the Gotham Gazette
Community Sign in

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Taking The Ugly Out Of The Voting Process

By Eliot Spitzer

Two years before the Florida recount, when we as a nation were educated in the good, the bad and the ugly of our electoral process, I had my own experience with a recount, in my race for New York State Attorney General. It had been one of the closest statewide elections in decades, decided ultimately by about 25,000 votes. I personally experienced the uncertainty that can result from the procedure, and I saw how the counting process could be subject to different interpretations and allegations of wrongdoing.

The presidential election of 2000 made it very clear that the deeply cherished right to vote is only as good as the infrastructure we have to support it. That infrastructure must permit us to get candidates on the ballot, to get into a voting booth and cast a ballot, and to have that ballot correctly counted. After that election, and with my own experience in mind, I asked some lawyers in my office to take a look at the process in New York, and to find answers to the question: what can we do to make democracy work better here?

At the time we did our report, New York had four counties that used the same paper ballot that got so much attention in Florida and caused so much uncertainty. Now it is down to two counties. We also lack a uniform state policy of interpreting handwritten ballots. It is clear, in other words, that, while we have been lucky during the most recent local elections, which were more closely contested than usual, the truth is, what happened in Florida could certainly happen here.

Our report came up with several recommendations to make sure that it does not:

Voter Participation
The first principle is enhancing voter participation. In order to do so we propose a statewide voter registration list. This would avoid the common problem of a poll worker being unable to find a voter's name on Election Day, thus forcing the voter to use a paper ballot rather than the voting machine. Of course, we would need to adopt privacy safeguards for the information -- how it could be used, who would have access to it. But this one step would, I believe, encourage more people to show up on Election Day.

Another way to improve voter participation is expanding voter education. Some of us in New York are fortunate enough to receive, from either the boards of elections of various counties or from public interest groups like NYPIRG, something that says, "Here are your rights. Here is where you go. Here is what you have to do to actually vote and exercise your franchise." Any additional efforts to educate the public about the process would help substantially.

Why is enhancing voter participation an important objective? We only have a 40 percent voter participation rate. That is not what one would like to see in a democratic process. A greater voter turnout, incidentally, would not necessarily change the result of elections. I have seen studies that reach opposite conclusions on that issue. Statisticians in particular contend that the 40 percent is a large enough sample to assert that, say, an 80 percent turnout would be very unlikely to cause a shift in election results.

Voter Choice
Principle two is expand voter choice. Theoretically, if you give voters a broader array of choices, more would come to vote on Election Day, because they will be more excited about their candidates. Expanding access to the ballot, permitting more people to participate is a goal we share. The system as it stands is largely closed. Candidates usually get chosen by leaders of their party. The alternative is an archaic petition process. Even though the rules have been simplified somewhat in the past decade, they remain difficult to satisfy. I think we should dramatically move towards a more open process, one that would use greater choice as a vehicle for improving democracy. Two ways this might be accomplished are: 1. reducing by half the number of signatures required on a petition and 2. permitting people to subscribe to multiple petitions to the same office. This would eliminate the effort to knock candidates off the ballot by eliminating double signers. These are two of the very technical requirements that could be eliminated.

Improve the Voting Process
Anybody in New York City knows that the machines do not always work. The curtains dont open. You dont know whether to pull the lever to the right or the left. Sometimes somebody there needs to go in with you. The machines break down. It is simply not the sort of modern technology that we want. We want to actually improve the process of voting itself. We want to make it easier to get into the voting booth, to cast your ballot without looking at this antiquated machine, that perhaps is forty years old, is difficult to repair and is not always accurate. Right now the only alternative in New York is paper ballots, which are worse.

Improve the Counting Process
We want to ensure that there is accurate counting. We not only want better machinery, we want to ensure uniformity. The rules for interpreting paper ballots must be the same in Utica and in New York City. Somehow we have strayed from that, and this is the issue my office litigated. There is some distance to be covered to ensure the integrity in the process. There is not yet uniformity, or horizontal equity across the state, in terms of how voting fraud is enforced.

One situation my office has greatly improved is physical access to the voting booth. Before November 2000 we addressed county board compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. We found that many of the voting locations across the state did not comply, and we successfully litigated against several counties. More frequently than litigating the issue, we worked with county boards on a voluntary basis to make sure that nobody is disenfranchised or faces difficulty in voting.

The intervening series of crises that we have gone through as a nation probably has dissipated some of the pressure to address the problems in our political process, and thats too bad. The attention span of our political leadership is too short. And it may well be that we can not succeed in legislating as we need to until there is another crisis, another threat of a breakdown of the electoral machinery. That would be a shame. I would have hoped that the events of November 2000 would have galvanized the American public in support of certain simple principles that I think are better served by the sorts of reforms that we propose.

Eliot Spitzer is the Attorney General of New York State. Adapted from remarks delivered to the Bar Association on January 14, 2002.

###

Check out the Feature Archives!


Gotham Gazette the Place for Politics and Policy

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

$app = JFactory::getApplication(); $menu = $app->getMenu(); $menu_items = $menu->getItems('menutype', 'mainmenu'); var_dump($menu_items); * */ ?>