Co-op City is one of the world's largest cooperative housing developments, with about 15,000 residential units and 50,000 residents. A limited-equity co-op with a proud history, it has put home ownership within the reach of generations of working-class New Yorkers.
It's not the kind of place you'd think would discriminate against a disabled man in wheelchair. And was it? That was the issue in RiverBay Corp. v. New York City Commission, in which the court had to determine whether to uphold a finding of the New York City Commission on Human Rights in an action started by John Rose against RiverBay, which manages Co-op City.
Rose, a disabled resident who uses a wheelchair, contacted RiverBay in 2008, asking that he be provided with a means to independently enter and exit the front door of his building. RiverBay proposed installing an automatic door on the side entrance, after having determining this was cheaper, since the front doors were older and heavier and would have to be replaced in order to install an automatic opener.
Rose filed a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights, while RiverBay went ahead and installed the side-door automatic openers. An administrative law judge determined Rose failed to demonstrate discrimination because the applicable New York City statute did not require RiverBay to provide access through a "main" entrance.
Out of Commission
The commission, however, rejected the judge's recommendation and concluded that RiverBay discriminated against Rose. It ordered RiverBay to make the front doors accessible and required RiverBay to pay $51,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in administrative fines for "outrageous conduct."
And so RiverBay sued the commission. It argued that the commission has violated its own precedent as well as statute and case law, and that the statute requiring reasonable accommodations didn't set forth any specific accommodation. RiverBay insisted that its architect reviewed Rose's initial request and determined that it was architecturally infeasible to install automatic doors in the front entrance, based upon the structure of the entryway and the way in which the doors were hung. And RiverBay said, among other things, that while the commission determined that its side-door accommodation was unsafe, this was not supported by the record. Witnesses testified that the side door was a building entrance and not a service door.
The commission, in response, asserted that Rose had been living at Co-op City for about 30 years and had always used the front entrance. The front door had floor-to-ceiling glass doors that allowed people to see into the vestibule. It had a push-button intercom system. And the vestibule was video-monitored, so that tenants could view the vestibule from their apartments.
The commission explained that its record showed that, for years, Rose had entered the building through the front door by waiting for someone to open the door and allow him access. When he arrived late at night, or outside of peak hours, he had to wait several minutes or even hours to gain access.
Architect Demolishes RiverBay
In 2008, several months after Rose made the accommodation request, RiverBay engaged an architect to review the issue. The architect presented two options: One required replacement of the front door with a handicap-use door that would cost roughly $20,000. The architect also considered installing automatic door-openers on the existing doors for about $16,000. Interestingly, the architect did not testify that the doors could not be installed from an architectural point of view. Indeed, he testified that the work could have been performed properly.
In September 2008, RiverBay suggested to the commission that Rose have access through the side entrance. Rose refused and stated that he did not feel safe at the side entrance and that it made him feel "like a second-class citizen." And even so, it wasn't until February or March 2010 before RiverBay installed an automatic door-opener on the side door.
That side door was "isolated," Rose said, being 30 to 50 feet from the main entrance and with less foot traffic. It was a metal door with a small window, and Rose could not reach up to see through it. Rose also said he could not be seen at the side door by the security guards at the main entrance. There was no intercom or video system at the side door. Video surveillance that monitored the side entrance did not capture the side hallway.
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