Queens Supreme Court Justice Frederick Sampson recently upheld a $125,000 fine, and $60,000 in damages, levied against a landlord who, in violation of the law, refused to provide accommodations to a handicapped tenant, and then subsequently installed surveillance cameras as a retaliatory measure to harass the paralyzed woman. The fine was the largest of its kind ever imposed by the New York Commission on Human Rights.
Irene Politis, who has been paralyzed since a 1979 car accident, lives with her husband, Ioannis, in an apartment in Astoria, Queens owned by Marine Terrace Associates and managed by the Wen Management Group. Since the building is not equipped with an elevator or wheelchair ramp to access the unit, Ms. Politis’ husband has to carry her up and down the five steps separating her front door from the ground level.
In 2008, Mr. Politis, concerned about his own deteriorating health, asked the landlord to build a ramp so his wife could freely come and go on her own. When the landlord ignored this request, Mr. Politis contacted the New York City Commission on Human Rights (“the Commission”). The Commission sent an architect to the Politis’ building to assess the feasibility of constructing the ramp. While the architect concluded that the front stairs were too narrow to accommodate a ramp, he noted that the landlord had made another unit in the building wheelchair accessible by altering a kitchen window and recommended that remedy for the Politises.
Under the City Human Rights Law, landlords are required to make alterations to their buildings to accommodate disabled tenants, so long as it does not create an unreasonable financial burden. Spurned to action by the Commission’s findings, in July 2010, the landlord brought in his own structural engineer who issued a report concluding the window ramp project would be financially unfeasible due to structural deficiencies in that part of the building. After this finding, the landlord offered as an alternative to move the Politises to a different building a few miles away. The Politises rejected this plan on account of not wanting to uproot the life they had established during their 27 years at this location. Additionally, moving would put their Section 8 government housing subsidy at risk.
In 2011, the Commission filed a complaint on behalf of the Politises against Marine Terrace Associates and Wen Management Group and brought the issue before Administrative Law Judge Tynia Richard. Judge Richards ruled that the landlord was not required to make the alteration since it was not financially feasible and because the landlord’s proposed alternative was reasonable. However, the Commission, not being bound by the decision, went against the ruling and issued a number of fines totaling $200,000.
Following this decision, the landlord and management company sought judicial review in Queens Supreme Court. There Justice Sampson affirmed the Commission’s decision, however lowered the total of the fines and damages to $185,000. Sampson justified the size of this fine on not only the refusal to accommodate the tenant’s disability, but also on egregious nature of the landlord’s surveillance efforts. Sampson noted that surveillance equipment was not placed in any other building on the complex and that the positioning of the cameras was so intrusive as to even film the tenant “within her home, at times when she was…partially clothed.” Prior to this ruling there have been only two other occasions in the last ten years that a judge has overturned an administrative law judge’s finding in a matter involving the Commission.
By: Joshua Wackerly, Legal Intern for Fishman & Mallon, LLP
Email Josh at: firstname.lastname@example.org