Racism was at the heart of another memorable case I handled, in the Town of Oyster Bay, this time directed against Mexican immigrants. On the evening of November 15, 1996, the Town of Oyster Bay raided a group of commercial office buildings in Hicksville that had been used for many years as residential facilities after the landlord had been unable to rent them profitably as commercial properties. The government came out in full force for the raid: There were at least two dozen policemen and a number of Town of Oyster Bay employees, including the superintendent of the Division of Buildings and the chief deputy town attorney.
They claimed that the tenants, primarily Mexican immigrants, had not objected to the raid and had welcomed them into their apartments. In fact, the tenants later told me that the Nassau police had pushed open locked doors and given the tenants no alternative but to submit for fear of the consequences were they to do otherwise. The raid confirmed that these buildings were being used illegally as residential properties, and the tenants were ordered to leave immediately. It was claimed, as well, that certain conditions in the building, such as fire hazards, made it dangerous for the tenants to remain.
In December, I attended a Christmas party hosted by the Central American Refugee Committee (Carecen), for which I was the treasurer and had been a board member for at least ten years. A staff attorney told me that Carecen had been asked to provide attorneys for the ousted tenants, and although she had skills in the area of immigration, she had no experience handling general litigation and had not been able to find an attorney willing to undertake representation of these tenants. So I offered my services pro bono.
It seemed to me that more was going on in this case than met the eye. In the ordinary course of events, the Town would have brought a lawsuit in the Nassau County District Court against the landlord without even naming the tenants in the lawsuit. After all, the tenants were there at the behest of the landlord, and he had been taking their illegal rent and security deposits for years. The history of the premises revealed that multiple violations had been issued and multiple lawsuits had been brought against the landlord in the Nassau County District Court, but these matters had all been treated as if they were of no particular moment, with repeated adjournments and a minimal settlement of $2,000. These buildings could have been worth millions of dollars, and it seemed to me that the landlord was now trying to get rid of the tenants so he could conclude some sort of deal, but was also trying to avoid a landlord/tenant proceeding in the District Court, where all sorts of time-consuming defenses could have been made. Was the Town doing the dirty work of the landlord in bringing this Nassau Supreme Court lawsuit and ousting the tenants?
I retained my brother, a licensed professional engineer with a specialty in structural engineering, to investigate the buildings pro bono. He concluded they were all structurally sound. Any needed repairs could be done at once and would entail minimal costs. From an engineering point of view, there was no reason to have evicted the tenants. We therefore asserted in our papers, among other things, that the Town of Oyster Bay was doing the dirty business of a private landlord and had acted in an unacceptable, immoral, and racist manner. What we also had in our favor was the fact that the case was to be tried just two days before Christmas and had received enough publicity to ensure media coverage. No judge wanted to be the one to keep these tenants homeless at this time of year. To make sure everyone would be fully aware of the timing of the proceeding, I had a few priests in clerical garb and a few nuns who supported the tenants attend the hearing. The only thing I was missing was a nursing mother or two.
I was right that the presiding judge, Judge Bucaria, didn’t want to look like a son-of-a-bitch during the Christmas season. He said, in effect, “Fellas, let’s make a deal.” In addition, the town attorney seemed to be aware of my reputation as someone who was willing to take on the issue of racism, which other lawyers were often afraid to mention, and he seemed nervous. Everyone was ready to find a way to settle the case.
Of the initial hundred or so tenants, only about thirty or forty remained, the rest having returned to Mexico, probably because they were undocumented. We couldn’t ask the court to allow these people to live on the premises indefinitely, so we worked out a deal that allowed them to stay there for another two months, rent- and utilities-free. They were to be forgiven any back rent due and reimbursed any security monies they had paid. This seemed to us a victory.
One of the buildings was unaffected by the settlement because it had been in use as a residential facility for more than thirty years and had been “grandfathered in” to the zoning code. I never really found out what happened with this building, but I suspect nothing much. It probably remained a residential facility or, possibly the landlord paid the tenants off so that he could use it for whatever other purpose he had in mind.
Several months later, at the Carecen annual fundraiser, I was given an award as the “Pro Bono Attorney of the Year.” It might sound corny, but it meant a lot to me. This case had given me a sense of accomplishment, of having done the right thing. At the party, everyone bought fundraising raffles with half the money going to Carecen and half to the winner of the raffle drawing. As luck would have it, I won the drawing — but business was good at the time and it was my pleasure to donate the money back to the organization.