Gotham Gazette

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Amid Pandemic, New Yorkers Challenge Civil Summonses at 100,000 Remote Hearings

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Government is happening remotely (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The New York City Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, or OATH, has reached the milestone of conducting 100,000 hearings by phone since the coronavirus outbreak forced widespread shutdowns of many in-person activities, according to an announcement from the office.

This makes it the leading court in the nation for hearing summons cases remotely during the pandemic, the announcement states, with “more cases in real-time with all parties appearing remotely than any other municipal or state court in the country.”

OATH is an independent administrative law court where many city enforcement agencies file summonses for hearings, such as the Department of Sanitation, Department of Buildings, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Parks Department, Department of Environmental Protection Police, FDNY, NYPD, Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

The office does not hold hearings on parking ticket summons. It does hold hearings on summonses issued by the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, which — in conjunction with the city’s Department of Health and the Sheriff’s Office — has been enforcing the city’s COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines.

Hearings are held for “quality of life and regulatory violations” issued by workers from the aforementioned city agencies if the recipient of the summons does not believe they actually violated the law.

“OATH’s top priority is to provide New Yorkers with access to justice; its stated mission is to provide a fair and impartial place where New Yorkers go to have their day in court so that they can tell a neutral decision-maker their defense and why they believe a City summons should be dismissed,” said OATH Commissioner Joni Kletter, in a statement accompanying the announcement. “What we have shown over the past year is that fulfilling this vitally important mission does not require a physical space. OATH can provide New Yorkers with access to just outcomes on City-issued summonses while also providing convenience and a healthy and safe way for New Yorkers to appear. No New Yorker should ever have to choose between protecting their health and safety and being able to fight a summons they believe should be dismissed.”

While the office’s hearings are usually held in person, the pandemic forced OATH to transition its day-to-day work into a remote format. Since mid-March 2020, the office’s hearings have been conducted over the phone.

Prior to the pandemic, 90% of all of the office’s hearings were held in court with the participants physically there, with only 10% of respondents receiving a remote hearing, a ratio that was in essence flipped during the COVID-19 pandemic. From March through December 2020, about 88% of all OATH hearings were held remotely.

“The ingenuity, resourcefulness and know-how of OATH’s executive leadership team and the daily hard work, flexibility and teamwork exhibited by OATH staff in the Clerk’s Office and in the Hearings Division made it possible for OATH to seamlessly transition to remote operations and to be the court that leads the nation in the number of cases heard and decided with all parties appearing remotely,” Kletter said.

As of June 2020, OATH was hearing 245 remote cases per day; now, this it is up to about 850 cases per day.

When asked why the office didn’t hold hearings over video conferencing calls like so many other organizations have during the pandemic, OATH Deputy Commissioner for Public Affairs and Communications Marisa Senigo told Gotham Gazette that the office felt phones are more readily accessible to the larger public.

“Many New Yorkers may not currently have access to internet or computers with cameras; or, they may feel intimidated using a platform they do not normally use and we want everyone to have the opportunity to challenge his/her summons,” Senigo said by email. “Everyone has access to a phone, and feels comfortable using a phone. Webex is used in our Trials Division since Webex is a DOITT-approved videoconferencing platform. The OATH Trials Division handles more complex, multi-day proceedings where most respondents have legal representation. Unlike the Trials Division, the summons cases heard at OATH’s Hearings Division only last 10-30 minutes and most respondents are self-represented.”

As a result of how successfully OATH was able to transition to remote hearings and due to the fact that the pandemic was still ongoing, the office announced on June 10, 2020 that it would continue to hold hearings over the phone until at least the end of 2020.

The new announcement from OATH marking its 100,000th phone hearing of the pandemic explained that it will continue to hold hearings “nearly exclusively” remotely, at least until the middle of 2021.

“We cannot know the exact timeline, but we certainly will continue to offer some remote hearing options as we have provided Hearings by Phone and allowed written defenses to be submitted through an online form or by mail for the past decade on certain types of cases,” Senigo said when asked if OATH may continue to hold hearings primarily remotely permanently. “Those types of cases that were eligible for remote hearings prior to the pandemic will always be eligible for remote hearings, and we hope to expand those case types as the enforcement agencies now have increased comfort and familiarity with our telephonic hearing process.”

According to the OATH announcement, on average 40%-plus of all summonses that are heard at OATH and being challenged by the respondent actually end up being dismissed.

Senigo told Gotham Gazette that there are fewer dismissals now than a year ago, “but that is not due to the method by which people are appearing. Summons-issuing agencies are not issuing as many summonses and when they issue a summons, it seems it is one that is more deliberatively and carefully issued since the City seems to be focusing its enforcement efforts on the most serious violations and making sure the summons is served on the correct party and for the correct infractions, which limits the reasons why a summons would be dismissed.”

Respondents who wish to have their hearing held remotely must contact OATH before their scheduled hearing date, at which point they will be able to confirm their hearing time and date. Any evidence that needs to be reviewed can be submitted through email during the proceeding, according to the announcement.

“Commissioner Kletter and her team have transformed OATH’s operations to best serve New Yorkers in a time of unprecedented change,” said counsel to the Mayor Kapil Longani, in a statement accompanying the announcement. “This milestone is a testament to the agency’s creativity, transparency, and commitment to upholding the values that drive this Administration — fairness and equity.”

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