ITHACA, N.Y.—The City of Ithaca has won its legal battle against City Court Judge Seth Peacock to restore the validity of property maintenance violations issued by city officials to local residents with unkempt properties. The order restores over 1,600 tickets that had been dismissed by Peacock last year.
The decision could signal the end of the lengthy internal conflict between Peacock and the city that started in January 2022, when Peacock declared the exterior property maintenance order (EPMO) violation tickets that the city had been handing out to landowners with infractions invalid and dismissed a total of 1,654 tickets that had been issued.
Peacock reached that conclusion by arguing that the city’s delivery method of tickets—which were sent via either first class mail or email—was insufficient notice and negated the city’s authority to enforce the tickets, which are typically issued to property owners for infractions such as overgrown grass, inadequate snow or ice removal that can create dangerous walkways or garbage on properties and carry an escalating financial penalty. He also stated that the city’s ticket notices only provided an option for ticket recipients to plead guilty, without providing the option to plead not guilty.
The city then appealed Peacock’s dismissal of the tickets and filed an Article 78 suit to seek preliminary relief from the decision, arguing that his legal basis was incorrect, the long-used mail delivery method was appropriate and that he did not have the authority to unilaterally dismiss the tickets. In October 2022, New York State Supreme Court Judge Elizabeth Aherne ruled in favor of Peacock and Ithaca City Court in the city’s Article 78 proceeding, which sought to make Ithaca City Court continue to accept pleas and payments from EPMO tickets while the overarching appeal played out.
In her ruling, Aherne found that Peacock had not abused his power by dismissing the tickets and that his objections to the delivery method were well-founded, though she acknowledged that “said Judge may be mistaken in the law as rightfully may be determined on appeal.”
“An Article 78 proceeding is not designed to provide endorsement of legal loopholes or to override a Judge attempting to uphold his obligation of providing a due and fair process for the citizens of the City of Ithaca,” Aherne wrote in her conclusion.
For 18 months, the legal battle left the EPMO tickets and their recipients caught between Ithaca officials, who never told the Building Department to stop issuing EPMO tickets according to City Attorney Ari Lavine and the city’s court system, which had already decided that the tickets were legally invalid and was actively refusing to process payment from people who had received EPMO tickets, both before and after Peacock’s ruling.
Tompkins County Court Judge Joseph R. Cassidy used the first sentence of his decision to succinctly say “The posture of this case is highly unusual.” Cassidy then proceeded to obliquely critique Peacock’s initial dismissal.
“The appeal was brought by the City Attorney after Ithaca City Court dismissed 1,654 tickets [without external request], with no apparent notice to or participation by the defendants,” Cassidy wrote. “There is no indication that City Court notified any of the defendants cited with tickets of the decision and the proceedings below.”
In his 11-page decision, Cassidy wrote that the court cases Peacock cited as the legal basis for the ticket dismissal were different enough from the EPMO situation that Peacock had not provided sufficient evidence to show the justification to dismiss all of the tickets. Cassidy also stated that the other cases cited were all created by a defendant requesting the dismissal of an issue, contrary to Peacock moving on his own (sua sponte is the Latin legal term mentioned throughout Cassidy’s decision, meaning a judge making a ruling unprompted by an external legal request) to dismiss the tickets. Cassidy said the summary dismissal “creates a serious due process issue that must be corrected on remand.”
Cassidy additionally ordered that Ithaca City Court must individually review all the dismissed tickets and reach “an individualized determination of each ticket upon notice and an opportunity to be heard for all parties,” presumably an order that extends to future EPMO ticket processing as well.
Cassidy’s decision was rendered in June. City Attorney Ari Lavine announced the city’s victory in an update to Common Council during its meeting last week, referencing Cassidy’s decision. It is unclear if Peacock intends to appeal the decision. As a judge, Peacock is not allowed to comment on cases, a note that was relayed by City of Ithaca Court Clerk Sheryl Kumpf, who also declined to comment. Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the New York Court System, also declined to comment.
“In that decision, County Court found that City Court is required to facilitate the ongoing operation of the EPMO, in contravention of City Court’s refusal to do so across the past year,” Lavine said in a copy of his comments to council passed along to The Ithaca Voice. “This decision is a crucial vindication of the City’s ability to enforce the EPMO. I am gratified that we have taken a big step towards re-instituting some municipal basics: enforceable rules for garbage-free yards and cut grass.”
Lavine said the city is now in the process of determining how to best proceed with rectifying the tickets that have been left unpaid between Peacock’s initial decision in January 2022 and Cassidy’s recent ruling, as well as the tickets that were dismissed by Peacock.
“We are now actively seeking to coordinate with City Court to restore the status quo, under which we are hopeful that City Court will enable the public to easily and efficiently address their tickets in a manner convenient to their needs,” Lavine said.
Correction: The first version of this article stated the decision was written by Tompkins County Court Judge John Rowley. The decision was written by Tompkins County Court Judge Joseph Cassidy.