ABA Journal

Legal Rebels

Housing lawyer Sateesh Nori knew COVID-19 would force courts to go digital—so he stepped in to help

By Amanda Robert

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Santeesh Nori

Sateesh Nori: “This is something that has never happened in the history of New York courts.” Photo by David Hills Photography/ABA Journal

As COVID-19 spread through New York City and shuttered its courthouses in March 2020, Sateesh Nori realized JustFix.nyc could do even more to empower tenants to exercise their rights during the pandemic. Nori had been a longtime board member of the nonprofit organization, which offers a free online tool to help tenants send formal letters to their landlords requesting repairs in their apartments. It also provides tenants with the forms they need to sue their landlords if they refuse to make those repairs.

“He was the very first person to call me and say, ‘The courts are going to go virtual’ and, ‘This is an opportunity for JustFix to step up and step in to help with what is really a necessary digital transformation of New York City Housing Court,’” says Georges Clement, the co-founder and executive director of JustFix.nyc.

While the state implemented an eviction moratorium, Nori, 45, the attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society Queens office, worked with the supervising judge of New York City Housing Court to permit tenants to start lawsuits through JustFix via their smartphones or computers. These matters can be brought over the loss of gas or heat or because of harassment or threats from a landlord. Once emergency cases are approved, they are heard virtually by a judge.

“This is something that has never happened in the history of New York courts,” Nori says. “Hundreds of these cases have been filed since April, and I think it is going to open the door for this type of thing to be the norm going forward.”

Nori, who was born in India and immigrated to New York with his parents as a child, developed an early interest in human rights. After graduating from New York University School of Law in 2001, he began his career as a housing attorney with the Legal Aid Society to “make immediate change in people’s lives.”

Each year, more than 200,000 cases are filed in housing court in New York City, and tens of thousands of residents are evicted. Despite the urgency of the situation, Nori realized little was being done to help tenants access the laws available to them.

He discovered JustFix.nyc when it won a grand prize at the 2015 NYC BigApps innovation competition and joined its board six months later. According to its latest impact report, there were more than 275,000 unique visits to JustFix.nyc’s services in 2019, which was four times the number of visits the previous year.

“There is a tendency for lawyers to be conservative and pick a path and just put their noses down,” Nori says. “I’ve always found in a place like New York, there are so many opportunities. If you think outside the box, you can really make positive change.”

Clement agrees that Nori has been a critical part of JustFix.nyc’s work because he isn’t afraid of risk or innovation. “Sateesh is a dreamer,” Clement says. “He is constantly thinking about what new things could exist to help the most vulnerable populations in New York City that he works day in and day out to support. He is deeply disturbed by the status quo and wants new ways to address problems.”

That was one of the reasons he joined JustFix. It also guides his work with the Legal Aid Society, where he is the first Asian American attorney-in-charge and manages about 85 people, including nearly three dozen attorneys. Additionally, he helps tenants outside of the office, serving on the board of Chhaya, a community development corporation that addresses the housing and economic needs of the city’s Indo-Caribbean and South Asian communities, and as a member of the Mayor’s Committee on City Marshals, which screens and selects the individuals who conduct evictions.

He started the Housing Law Externship at his alma mater, where he teaches as an adjunct professor. He has also chaired the New York City Bar Association’s Housing Court Committee and served on the New York City Housing Court Advisory Council.

He expects JustFix.nyc to expand to other cities, particularly as courts are becoming more open to virtual hearings because of COVID-19. He also hopes New York City residents can file other types of cases electronically in the future.

“It’s amazing to see that it took a pandemic to unlock the full potential of this idea that courts are a service and not a place,” says Nori, an avid runner who spent much of the spring shutdown raising his now-9-year-old twins and writing a memoir about being a housing attorney. “The next frontier is opening more avenues for people to assert their rights in various ways, and technology can help open a lot of those doors.”

Read more: 2021 Legal Rebels: Meet 10 legal professionals who are courting change

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