Every co-op board fears being hit with a discrimination suit by a member of a protected class. The Nick Biondi case remains the textbook example of the potential repercussions of such lawsuits. Despite those fears, the board at an Inwood co-op is moving to evict an 18-year-old woman with psychiatric disorders because she has periodic screaming fits, which have triggered noise complaints from neighbors, including calls to the police that have led to the woman’s hospitalization on two occasions. The co-op board recently sent the shareholder a letter saying they plan an eviction over the noise complaints. The woman’s sister asks, “Is this legal? Is there anything we can do to remain in the apartment?”
Most co-ops have the authority to evict shareholders for objectionable conduct, including excessive noise, replies the Ask Real Estate column in the New York Times. However, the source of these noise complaints is not simply a disruptive neighbor. She suffers from psychiatric disorders, and the New York City Human Rights Law prohibits property owners from discriminating against people with disabilities, including mental and emotional ones. Boards challenge this law at their peril.
The shareholder is advised to consult a lawyer familiar with housing discrimination laws. The lawyer could write a letter to the board explaining that the young woman has a mental illness, and moving to evict her may violate city law. This may be enough to give the board pause. The woman’s family could also contact the city’s Commission on Human Rights for guidance or, potentially, to file a complaint.
A board cannot evict shareholders on a whim. It must follow strict procedures designed to give the tenant an opportunity to plead his or her case at a meeting where shareholders or the board vote to evict. “It is possible that the board and other tenants just simply do not know why she has been having screaming fits,” says attorney Ingrid Manevitz, a partner at Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas. In cases like this, ignorance is no defense for a co-op board.
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