A New York landlord attorney has been barred from practicing for three months for “using gender pejorative language” in an outburst directed at a tenant attorney.
The Appellate Division, First Depart- ment issued the punishment against Seth Denenberg on Dec. 29. It deemed his actions — calling Chavette Jackson a “bitch” several times in front of her client in a Brooklyn Housing Court hallway in January 2017 — as “undignified or discourteous conduct” that “adversely reflects on his fitness as a lawyer.”
“I felt like the comments were racist, like the comments were sexist,” Jackson, who is black, stated at the court’s disciplinary hearing in November 2019. “I feel like if I was a white man, no matter what my years of experience in this practice, he would not have said that.”
According to the court, the incident began when Jackson was outside the courtroom speaking to the tenants she was representing, saying she was not ready to have the case called because she needed to consult with her supervisor. Denenberg, representing the landlord, told her he was going to have the case called. Jackson testified that she sternly told him not to do that, and Denenberg answered, “You don’t have to be a bitch about it,” and then called her a “bitch” four more times.
The landlord lawyer claimed that Jackson had aggressively poked him in the forehead several times, but none of the witnesses, including the six he’d called to testify on his behalf, said they’d seen her make any physical contact.
Women lawyers in Housing Court have complained about similar behavior before, the court noted. In May 2017, a list of 60 specific instances of inappropriate behavior by male attorneys, drawn up by female attorneys from Brooklyn Legal Services, was circulated at a meeting of the Brooklyn Landlord and Tenant Bar.
The incident also occurred in a court system where the majority of tenants facing eviction are women, mostly black or Latino. A 2018 study by economist Robert Collinson and Davin Reed analyzed nonpayment cases against more than 170,000 households in New York City Housing Court, and found that 70 percent of them were headed by women, and were predominately black and/or Latino.
In 2020, a study by the Community Service Society found that in Housing Court cases from 2017 to 2019, tenants living in ZIP codes where most residents were black were three times more likely to be evicted than tenants in majority-white ZIP codes. Tenants in majority-Latino ZIP codes were more than twice as likely to be evicted.