New York City Council

The NYC Council is suing Eric Adams. Here’s what you need to know.

The City Council’s lawsuit against the mayor makes an aggressive argument for the separation of powers.

New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams

New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit

New York City’s government is set up with a variety of checks and balances. The mayor can veto legislation passed by the City Council that he finds objectionable. The council can override that veto, but only with a supermajority of support.  

In their lawsuit against Mayor Eric Adams for failing to implement a package of laws passed last year, the New York City Council is making an aggressive argument for those checks and balances. 

In a much anticipated move, the City Council filed a motion on Feb. 21 to intervene in an existing lawsuit against Mayor Adams’ administration brought by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of New Yorkers eligible for rental vouchers. The existing suit seeks to compel the administration to implement a package of laws that expand access to city rental vouchers. The City Council’s motion to intervene was approved on Feb. 29, with both parties in the existing suit consenting to the council joining as a plaintiff.

The laws that the City Council and the Legal Aid Society are now fighting to have implemented would expand access to CityFHEPS rental vouchers, including by increasing the income eligibility level and eliminating work requirements. Mayor Adams’ administration argued against the bills as they moved through the council last year, stating that they would be prohibitively expensive and de-prioritize the people in most desperate need of the vouchers amid a dire affordable housing crisis.

The mayor vetoed the bills after the City Council passed them, but the council had more than enough votes to override those vetoes, and voted to override last July. Last fall, City Limits reported that the administration not only disagreed with the bills but also didn’t intend to fully implement them despite them becoming law. The Adams administration has suggested that in addition to their policy objections, they also view the laws as illegal, arguing that state Social Services Law preempts them and that due to their large estimated cost, they should have been passed by referendum. 

“With more than 10,000 households with CityFHEPS vouchers already in the city shelter system unable to find housing and a rental vacancy rate of just 1.4%, a historic low in the last 60 years, the Council’s bill will only make it harder for New Yorkers in shelter to move into permanent housing,” City Hall spokesperson Kayla Mamelak said in an emailed statement.

The council’s lawsuit marks an escalation in the division between the council and City Hall on policy issues lately. 

Here’s what you need to know about the council and mayor’s legal rift. This story was updated March 5.

How common are lawsuits between the mayor and City Council?

The frequency of legal challenges between the mayor and council has depended on the administration, but direct lawsuits are still relatively rare – a full step up from veto and veto override fights. “You're always trying to work out a deal. You don't want to go to court – who wants the judges involved, putting their two cents in,” said Eric Lane, a professor of law at Hofstra University and former special counsel to former City Council Speaker Gifford Miller. “So you try to work it out in the political context, but sometimes you don’t.”

When the latter happens, the mayor and council can wind up in court. In 1994, the City Council sued Mayor Rudy Giuliani over a dispute on how to close a budget gap – a topic not unfamiliar to the current mayor and council. 

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio and the council were caught in a legal dispute during de Blasio’s second term on a more minor issue – the question of whether a group of council members could file an amicus brief in support of a plaintiff suing over the city’s property tax system.

Lawsuits between the mayor and council were slightly more common under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was in court against the council on multiple occasions during his 12 years in office. That included instances of the mayor suing the council and vice versa. 

One of those cases considered a law passed by the City Council and opposed by the Bloomberg administration that required companies that do business with the city to extend the same benefits to employees’ domestic partners that they did to employees’ spouses. (Same-sex marriage wouldn’t be legalized in New York for another seven years.) 

Despite dealing with an entirely different subject matter, that case shares some similarities with the current City Council’s lawsuit against Mayor Adams. In addition to considering the merits of the law itself in that case, the court also considered whether the mayor was within his rights to refuse to implement a law that had been passed by the council. In 2006, the case reached the state Court of Appeals, which delivered a victory to Bloomberg on both fronts – ruling 4-3 that the council law violated state and federal law, and that Bloomberg was not obligated to enforce a law that he deemed illegal when the courts had yet to rule on its validity.

What is the City Council’s case against the mayor?

Similar to the 2006 case with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, two main issues are at play in this City Council’s filing against Mayor Adams. The council makes arguments for why the laws themselves are valid, and makes the argument that the mayor is required to enforce these laws, which were supposed to take effect on Jan. 9 of this year.

On the first issue, which deals with the laws’ validity, the council makes the case that this package of laws changing eligibility requirements for CityFHEPS vouchers does not, as the Adams administration has suggested, violate state Social Services Law or curtail the city’s typical budget process because of their large estimated cost. (The Adams administration estimated that the laws will cost $17 billion over five years, while the council estimated they will cost $10.6 billion over that time.) 

In making this argument, the council points to other laws passed by the City Council in recent years that make reforms to the same CityFHEPS program and that were passed and implemented without these preemption or budgetary concerns being raised. A law passed in 2021, for example, raised the value of CityFHEPS vouchers.

On the second issue, the council argues that the administration is shirking its role under the New York City Charter by failing to implement these laws. “While the mayor can assist the Council in proposing legislation, if and when a Mayor’s veto is overridden, his role as policy maker ends and his law enforcement role begins,” council lawyers said in one document. “Regardless of whether the local law aligns with his policy preferences, he is duty-bound to implement the law. Actions to the contrary unlawfully usurp legislative authority and violate the separation of powers doctrine.”

The council also argues that if Mayor Adams believed the laws to be invalid, he should have proactively gone to court to seek a judgment on them, rather than unilaterally declaring them illegal.

Why is the City Council suing now?

If the City Council wants to see these CityFHEPS laws implemented, suing might be their best option at this point. The Adams administration has made it clear that they don’t plan to fully implement the laws.

But why not let the Legal Aid Society, which has already sued to enforce the laws, do the council’s dirty work? The Legal Aid Society sued on behalf of people eligible for the vouchers, and shares the council’s end goal of seeing the laws implemented. But it’s in the council’s best interest to actually participate in any lawsuit that could produce rulings that might impact the council’s legislative authority, said Louis Cholden-Brown, a former counsel to former City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. The City Council made that argument in their successful motion to intervene.

“If anyone wants to see these laws implemented, there’s not a choice but to sue,” Cholden-Brown said. “And then I think once a suit has been initiated, in order to preserve the council’s interests, it is important for the council to participate.”

What’s at stake?

It’s unclear how courts will rule. But there could be more at stake in the litigation than just the fate of these CityFHEPS laws. If the court rules against the council and finds that the body did overstep its legislative authority or circumvent the budget process, that ruling could limit the council’s ability to pass other kinds of laws.

Cholden-Brown doesn’t think that’s likely, and said he thinks the council will prevail when it comes to arguing the validity of the laws. Arguing that the mayor is obligated to enforce laws that he deems as illegal could be more difficult, given the 2006 ruling in favor of Bloomberg on a similar question. Even still, if the case were to move up to the Court of Appeals and the court ruled that the laws themselves are valid, it’s likely at that point that the mayor’s counsel would advise him to implement them, Cholden-Brown said.

There’s also the question of what’s at stake in the relationship between the mayor and City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who has grown increasingly outspoken on policy differences with the mayor, including in two entirely separate veto override fights last month. Despite heated public disagreements, Mayor Adams and Speaker Adams have both maintained that they still have a good relationship.