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What I Do

What I Do: Neil Tolciss, administrative law judge

New York Teacher

For 14 years, he has mediated hearings on possible violations of the city's quality of life laws, such as on noise, sanitation and fire codes. Administrative law judges represented by the UFT ratified their first collective-bargaining agreement with the city in June.

What does an administrative law judge do?

We basically hear cases brought by city agencies on quality-of-life cases, such as those involving violations of city fire, sanitation, building, air pollution and noise codes. Some of our most common cases involve food vendors operating without a license, such as hot dog and falafel carts and coffee wagons.

Do you work in a courtroom?

No, these aren’t criminal charges. It’s a hearing, not a trial. People are sworn in and their testimony is recorded, but it’s more informal than a trial. People can represent themselves. We try to make it as unintimidating as possible. I work out of a hearing room on John Street in lower Manhattan. The room is 10 feet by 10 feet, with a desk, and people sit around the desk. I also have a window, which is unusual.

What kind of experience do you need to be an administrative law judge?

The job was envisioned as per diem for retired attorneys and people with small practices who have flexibility. You have to have three to five years of experience, but historically most have at least 10 years as an attorney. I’m 65 years old, and I was a litigating attorney for 20 years. When you start, you go through an orientation by the agency you serve, such as the Environmental Control Board in my case, for the specific laws you’ll be dealing with.

What is the most challenging aspect of the job?

Unlike court judges, our discretion is limited. We can’t modify things for a better solution. To quote Gilbert and Sullivan, the punishment doesn’t always fit the crime. For the most part, we have no discretion in setting fines. Some fines are disproportionate for a one-time error. For instance, when you put up posters on a public building or lamppost, it will cost you $75 per poster in fines. The law imposes the fine that way, and the fine can total hundreds of dollars. Frequently the people who have put up the posters are trying to start a business with little money, such as mom-and-pop home day care centers. If they put up 50 posters, that can cost them easily $3,500. That lack of discretion on setting fines is one of the more frustrating things. There should be a better solution, and there isn’t. Then there are the political campaign posters which go up every year. On private lawns these signs are fine, but they aren’t allowed on the public median of a highway. Campaigns are warned. They know better.

What’s the biggest misconception about your work?

Some people think the city is always going to win. That’s not true. We listen to both sides. We bend over backward to make sure people are treated fairly. The best thing is to hear someone say, “thank you for being fair,” even if they haven’t won the hearing. It’s not an exercise in futility, and it’s not an automatic process. There’s substance to it.

Sometimes there’s frustration with the process, and people have to let off steam. They need to feel they had a hearing.

What else would you like people to know about the work of hearing officers?

We’re not robots who process paper; we do listen and care and think about what we’re doing. We’re an integral part of the judicial system. We sift through the evidence. We’re listening to and reading more than in a court trial. In court, a lot of information would not be admissible. The people who come before us are trying to express themselves. We have to evaluate in our mind whether the testimony is trustworthy. Also, anybody can come and observe a hearing, as long as they don’t disturb the proceedings.

Joys of the job?

You’re in the middle of a bustling city. You see matters come up before someone takes an issue to the City Council, the newspapers or TV. It can involve disabled vendors selling goods in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the pedicabs in Central Park or housing violations. Often such issues come before the administrative law judges first. Also, I like working with people and knowing I’m doing something for the general public. When you’ve heard people out, given them an opportunity for redress and worked on a just decision — you feel you did something for everybody. You hope people come out of it with a better feeling.

— As told to reporter Linda Ocasio

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