By: Carol A. Sigmond
In the recent decision Matter of Marine Holdings, LLC v. New York City Commission on Human Rights, 137 A.D.3d U84 (A.D. 2nd Dept. March 30, 2016), the Appellate Division, Second Department, provided valuable guidance for landlords and property owners, those who manage residential properties, either as board members or managing agents, on the meaning of the term “reasonable accommodation” in the context of handicapped access to buildings. Marine Holdings stands for the proposition that where it is “structurally infeasible” to make changes to a building entrance, the property owner will be excused from making the changes based on undue hardship.
Marine Holdings arose after a disabled tenant requested that her kitchen window be converted to a doorway with a ramp. When the landlord declined to make the changes, the tenant complained to the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Charges were issued and there was a hearing before an administrative law judge. During the course of the evidentiary hearing, the landlord presented testimony from a structural engineer to the effect that the doorway requested was structurally infeasible.
The wall in issue was a load-bearing exterior wall. The wall was composed of cinder block. The landlord’s structural engineer deemed cinder block a weak structural system. In order to reinforce and stabilize the cinder block wall to allow for the requested opening and a ramp that would support the tenant safely, a pin shoring was required. The pin and sleeve assembly for pin shoring was nor straightforward. There were issues about how the pin shoring would react to heat, humidity, and cold in relation to the cinderblock. If the pin shoring was compromised, the exterior load-bearing wall and ramp would be a risk for failure.
The structural engineer also testified before the administrative law judge that he considered the proposed wall opening and ramp as potentially hazardous to the gas lines located in the basement directly below the tenant’s apartment.
To counter the landlord’s structure engineer, the commission presented the testimony of an architect. The commission’s architect disputed the testimony of the structural engineer.
The administrative law judge found the testimony of the structural engineer more persuasive and ruled in favor of the landlord. The commission reversed the administrative law judge and fined the landlord $75,000 for mental anguish and imposed a civil penalty of $125,000. By an Article 78 petition, the landlord appealed the commission’s decision to the Supreme Court far Queens County. In the Supreme Court for Queens County, the fine for mental anguish was reduced, but the commission’s decision was not otherwise altered.
The landlord appealed to the Appellate Division Second Department, where the commission’s decision and all fines and penalties were fully vacated and annulled. The Appellate Division considered the rule that a decision of an administrative body like the Human Rights Commission could only be sustained if it was based on ‘substantial evidence.” The court held that the commission’s decision to penalize and fine the landlord was not based on “substantial evidence.” The testimony of the structural engineer, which was found credible by the administrative law judge, to the effect that the proposed ramp and opening were structurally infeasible was not rebutted with “substantial evidence” that the opening and ramp were “structurally infeasible.”
Thus, the Appellate Division Second Department has provided meaningful guidance for any landlord facing demands for structural changes to accommodate the handicapped. Structural infeasibility, if supported by credible engineering, architectural and scientific evidence will meet the standard of “undue hardship” under the New York City Human Rights Law as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This column presents a general discussion and is not intended to provide legal advice. You should consult your attorney for specific legal advice.