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Human Rights Laws

Oct 01, 2018

Richard Klein, Partner, Romer Debbas

Earlier this year, the president of a co-op board that I represent telephoned and told me that the night before the board had done an interview on a purchase application that was pending. They had reviewed the finances and the admissions package and everything looked okay. They had the interview.


The president said that when the potential new shareholder showed up, the person was in a wheelchair. When they were conducting the interview, this proposed shareholder said that he found that he had some trouble getting into the apartment because the doorway was a little bit narrow. He thought that perhaps the doorway would need to be widened to accommodate his access to the apartment.


Human Rights Laws 

It is illegal to discriminate against tenants, apartment seekers, and home buyers on
the basis of age, color, disability, gender, gender identity, immigration status, lawful occupation, lawful source of income (including housing subsidies), marital or partnership status, military service, national origin, pregnancy, presence of children, race, religion/creed, sexual orientation, or status as a victim of domestic
violence, sexual violence, or stalking.


So the president called me the next day and said, "What do we do? Who's going to be responsible for paying for this repair if we need to do it?"


Like most proprietary leases, this one was written in the 1980s and provided for the co-op to be responsible for any repairs or maintenance or anything pertaining to a door or the frame. If we needed to widen the door that would be at the co-op's and not the shareholder's expense.


Based on that possibility, the board was asking me would it be okay if the board rejected this applicant because they don't want to be involved with that, nor do they want to set a precedent in doing those kinds of repairs. So I quickly reminded the president that here in New York City we have the Human Rights Law, which exists to protect certain classes of individuals, one of which is people who are disabled. To reject the applicant at this point could open up the board to claims of discrimination because they're rejecting this person based on a disability.


I told them that they should probably accept this proposed purchaser, assuming everything else was okay. New York City law states that, in this case, a board needs to make a reasonable accommodation for the disabled person. If it is extremely costly to do this, perhaps the board would not have to do it when the request to widen the doors is made. But the board cannot reject the purchaser because he is disabled. It will be probably be hit with a discrimination complaint.


New York City and New York State are both very keen on enforcing their human rights laws. So you don't want to get into that situation. As I explained to the board member if we were to deny this person and he did file a complaint. It could be extensive litigation which could open up the board to a lot of liability. It's a litigation that would have to be disclosed in their financial statements. It could hurt values,  for other prospective purchasers or sellers in the building. So it wasn't really a place we wanted to go.


I try to be proactive with my boards and alert them by sending emails throughout the year about what's going on with the New York City Human Rights Law or other similar laws, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, to let them know what they need to do or not do when dealing with these kinds of situations.


I always advise my boards that if they have any issue that they can recognize when reviewing a board package, they should make the rejection at that time. Because it's very hard for people to say they were discriminated against if they haven't had the interview and you really haven't seen who they are yet.


If the person is disabled or has a different ethnicity or familial status or anything else that's protected under the New York City Human Rights Law and then you reject them after the interview, potentially you could be subject to a claim, whether it's right or wrong. You could have other legitimate reasons for rejecting a purchase application. Consequently,  I always say scrutinize the package, and if you get any inkling that there's some issue reject them at that point – and don't interview them. If the rejection is really based on a concern that the applicant is in one of the protected classes, don't do it. It's not going to be good for the building.

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