IN APRIL, OSCAR, a 44-year-old man living in East Harlem who suffers from debilitating multiple sclerosis, was sued over nearly $4,000 of alleged unpaid credit card debt. A court set a date for him to appear in June, but Oscar’s disease made it highly uncertain whether he’d be able to make it to court in person.
“Even if he goes to bed feeling great tonight, there’s no way to know if he’ll be sick tomorrow,” his wife said, speaking for him due to his disease-induced speech impediment. “If on the day he has court my husband is not feeling well and can barely make it to the bathroom, I highly doubt that he can ride the subway for 40 minutes, sit in court for hours, and make it back home.”
That meant Oscar, who requested that his real name not be used to protect his privacy, faced the risk of not making it to court, losing the case by default, and being ordered to pay the alleged debt in full.
Oscar’s wife tried to get the court to allow him to appear in court virtually. The state court system’s disability policy entitles all disabled people to accommodations that allow them to participate in court proceedings, and the policy lists remote appearances as one type of accommodation that judges can grant.
Several weeks ahead of Oscar’s court date, his wife sent a letter to the court requesting a virtual appearance, she said. After not receiving any response for a month, she emailed. When she still heard nothing back, she repeatedly called the courthouse, but was never able to speak to anyone who could help.
“No one ever got back to us,” she said.
Disabled New Yorkers navigating New York’s court system and their lawyers say Oscar’s experience is the rule, not the exception, for many hundreds of people trying to access accommodations each year.
Many courts in New York went virtual during the pandemic, making them much more accessible to people whose conditions make it difficult or impossible to get to a courthouse.
“Before the pandemic, it was really rare that they would allow someone to not come and participate remotely,” said Mary McCune, an attorney at Manhattan Legal Services, which assists low-income New Yorkers. “Once they started doing virtual court, that opened a whole new world of accommodations.”
As courts have returned to requiring in-person appearances over the past year, disabled New Yorkers and their lawyers hoped that they would be allowed to continue appearing in court virtually. But when disabled people specifically ask the court for accommodations, they often don’t get a response: McCune said that none of her clients who’ve requested accommodations have heard back by their court date.
“You can be undergoing traction in a hospital and you’re literally unable to move, and you can’t get your request for an accommodation,” McCune said. “I’m not talking about people with minor issues. I’m talking about heart surgery, multiple sclerosis, long Covid.”
A NEW ONLINE FORM, launched this March, was supposed to make it easier for disabled people to access accommodations. The form is used in New York City, Long Island, and Monroe County — areas that include more than half the population of the state — and the court system hopes to expand it across the state by March of next year, according to court spokesperson Lucian Chalfen.
There’s just one problem with that plan: The form often doesn’t work. Multiple lawyers and disabled litigants told New York Focus that they filed requests for accommodations using the form, but never got any response from the court system.
“We applied and we never got back an answer. I never received nothing from them,” said Miriam Carona, a 74-year-old north Bronx resident who suffers from arthritis, asthma, and other pulmonary diseases. She is currently facing a suit over $2,859 of alleged unpaid credit card debt, and in April filed an accommodation form asking to be allowed to appear in court virtually.
Carona was able to independently secure a pro bono lawyer who will appear in court on her behalf. But the vast majority of defendants in civil cases do not have lawyers, since unlike in criminal cases, there’s no constitutional right to one. Without an attorney or a right to appear virtually, disabled defendants must find a way to appear in person or risk losing their cases by default.
Chalfen, the court spokesperson, said that 661 requests for accommodations have been submitted through the form since March, but that the court system doesn’t yet have data on how many were granted or received a response.
Nearly nine in 10 of the requests were to appear by phone or video. Those requests are referred to judges, since only a judge can grant them, Chalfen said, as opposed to accommodations like sign language interpreters and large print documents that can be granted by court staff.
It’s almost impossible for litigants like Carona to make requests directly, since in civil court, they don’t know who their judge will be until the day of their court date.
“If I call the courthouse to ask for someone to appear virtually, the person who answers the phone will say, ‘You need to contact the judge,’” McCune said. “So I say, ‘We don’t know who the judge will be on that day.’ And they say, ‘Well then, you’ll have to go to court.’”
In Oscar’s case, the issue resolved itself in July, when the plaintiff dropped the suit. But the thought of what could have happened infuriates his wife. “It shouldn’t be so hard for people with disabilities to get assistance,” she said.
WHEN DISABLED PEOPLE do manage to secure virtual appearances, they sometimes face additional barriers.
Court staff sometimes send phone numbers or Zoom links to join court proceedings virtually even though the judge hasn’t given permission, said Jasmine Sabadosa, a paralegal at the nonprofit Mobilization for Justice. Sometimes that works fine, she said, but other times judges respond negatively.
“The judge treated me like a criminal,” said Egizio Panetti, a 65-year-old SoHo resident facing a lawsuit over alleged unpaid credit card debt. Panetti, who is legally blind and recovering from cancer, didn’t get a response from the judge before a recent court date but was sent a Zoom link anyway. “She said how did I dare not to show up, and next time find somebody to take you there,” he said.
Logistical difficulties can also make accessing accommodations difficult. This summer, 72-year-old East Harlem resident Miriam Falcon Lopez faced an eviction lawsuit from her landlord. Falcon Lopez, who is physically disabled and uses a walker, asked to file her response to the suit virtually, rather than in person at the downtown Manhattan housing court. The court granted her request, but Falcon Lopez said the online form she was sent didn’t work. Falcon Lopez asked to send in her response as an attachment to an email, but the court said that if she couldn’t use the form, she’d have to file her submission in person.
Falcon Lopez’s son took a day off from his job as a porter to travel to the court and submit the response. He was turned away because he didn’t have additional required paperwork, and had to take another day off work to finally submit it the following week.
“I truly don’t understand how unrepresented tenants are able to participate in the legal process if they can’t get to court,” said Molly Rockett, a housing attorney at Legal Services Manhattan who is now representing Falcon Lopez and will appear in court on her behalf. “And I don’t understand why she couldn’t just have emailed it as an attachment.”
Lawyers say the issue is especially frustrating because of how recently the solution was proven to work.
“They were able to do virtual court dates during the pandemic for several years,” McCune said. “There are so many advantages to that system, particularly for the disabled community. Why has there been such a rush to eliminate it?”