Queens Co-op Told to Accommodate the Disabled

In two rulings interpreting the federal Fair Housing Act, a New York appellate court has decided that a Queens co-op must make reasonable alterations to common areas for its disabled residents. In another ruling the court also held that a Queens landl ord did not discriminate against Orthodox Jews when it installed electronic locks on its buildings' entrances. Both cases were reported in the September 1, 1994 New York Law Journal.

The Appellate Division, Second Department, in Matter of United Veterans Mutual Housing No. 2 Corp. v. NYC Commission on Human Rights affirmed then-Justice Sidney Leviss's 1992 ruling. He directed the co-op, an 800-unit garden apartment complex in Bayside known as Bell Park Gardens, to change its policy of refusing to spend any co-op funds to install wheelchair ramps or other reasonable accommodations for disabled residents.

When considering the discrimination claims of the disabled residents of the Bayside co-op, the Second Department found that the co-op's policy violated both the federal housing law and New York City's Administrative Code. Justice Leviss had denied the co-op's petition to annul the Commissioner of Human Rights' determination that Bell Park Gardens' refusal to provide ramps for wheelchair access was a discriminatory practice. While the petition was pending, the City Council had amended the Administrative Code to require all housing providers to make accommodations for residents with disabilities.

The appellate judges rejected the co-op's contention that federal law preempted state and local governments from acting on the issue of accommodations for the disabled. "Moreover, the provision of the Administrative Code pertaining to reasonable accommodations are not in conflict with the federal Fair Housing Act. Both essentially provide that it shall be unlawful for any person or entity to refuse to make reasonable accommodations to afford a handicapped person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling unit," the United Veterans panel said.

The finding of discrimination "does not violate the due process or the equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution simply because it effectively requests the individual cooperators to pay for something that solely benefits another cooperator. Legislation that is designed to prevent discrimination in general and to protect the disabled in particular is intended to promote the general welfare of the community," the court said.

In another case decided the same day, a different four-judge panel reversed the 1991 order of then-Justice Martha K. Zelman. She ruled that several Orthodox Jewish families had presented a prima facie case of discrimination against their landlord for changing the building locks from manual to electric operation in Siegel v. Blair Hall. The Second Department dismissed the action in its entirety.

The plaintiffs in Siegel, several families who lived in four buildings at Queens Boulevard and 99th Street in Rego Park, had asserted civil rights and other claims. They sought injunctive relief after their protests failed to convince the managing agent and landlord to return to manual locks after converting to an electronic system in 1988.

Jewish law prohibits working on the Sabbath and certain religious holidays; the prohibition includes the breaking of an electric circuit. Thus, the Orthodox residents were required to wait by the doors until a non-observant neighbor came to open the lock, thereby breaking the circuit and releasing an electromagnet.

"Undoubtedly, the act of installing electric locks placed an added burden upon the plaintiffs in the exercise of their religious observations. However, merely because an act creates a burden does not, in our pluralistic society, mean that it is a discriminatory act," the unanimous appellate panel said in its unsigned memorandum decision.

"It is reasonable to assume that the act of installing electric locks was done for the sole purpose of deterring crime. The record is devoid of any allegation from which it can be reasonably inferred that the installation was done with discriminatory intent," the judges added. "The inconvenience placed upon the plaintiffs is not of such a nature as to be deemed discriminatory."

Justice David S. Ritter sat on panels hearing both cases. Justices Vincent Pizzuto, Fred T. Santucci and Myriam J. Altman joined him in United Veterans. Justices Albert M. Rosenblatt, John Copertino and Daniel W. Joy formed the rest of the panel in Siegel.

A. Brent Blacksburg and Michael A. Jay of Kew Gardens, Queens, appeared for the co-op in United Veterans. Assistant Corporation Counsels Larry A. Sonenshein and Mordecai Newman for Corporation Counsel Paul A. Crotty handled the appeal for the Commission on Humans Rights.

E. Richard Rimmels Jr., Susan H. Dempsey and Christopher T. Cafaro of Montfort, Healy, McGuire, & Salley in Garden City represented the landlord in Siegel. Counsel for the plaintiffs was Peretz Bronstein of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom.