Resolving co-op disputes can be very difficult, but when a disability is added to the mix, boards have to tread carefully. Steven Sladkus, partner at Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas, walks Habitat through avoiding disaster.
Resolving co-op disputes can be very difficult, but when a disability is added to the mix, boards have to tread carefully. Have you come across this problem?
Disabilities definitely throw a wrench into things in that they raise issues that don’t come up in the normal course of living in a co-op or condominium. I handled a case where a family was complaining about the noise from their neighbor upstairs. Management and the board went up to take a look, and sure enough, there was no floor covering at all. So the board asked me to write a letter to this shareholder saying she had to comply with the co-op’s rules and cover 80 percent of the floors properly.
What happened next?
The board received a complaint from the New York State Division of Human Rights saying that we were discriminating against the upstairs neighbor's disability. And I'm thinking to myself, “What could that possibly be?” Further down in the complaint, it said she was allergic to all types of floor covering, and therefore her allergy constituted a disability, so she did not have to cover her floors.
So instead of responding to your letter, the shareholder went directly to Human Rights.
Correct. As a result, they sent someone out, and I met with them in the woman’s apartment. They wanted to determine if there was in fact what they call probable cause to continue their investigation.
Is that typical with this type of complaint?
They usually do have someone investigate, or they ask management for the statistics of a building so they can decide if the complaint is bona fide and whether something needs to be done. It was pretty hard for that inspector to ignore the fact that there was no floor covering anywhere in the apartment. But what they were concerned about was the fact that the shareholder was being forced to cover her floors, which would trigger her disability.
So how was it resolved?
We had a bit of a back and forth. I told the shareholder that I was sure there were hypoallergenic types of floor coverings, just like there are hypoallergenic dogs for people with allergies. She was not cooperative or receptive at first but eventually came around and said she would see what she could find.
What made her change her mind?
I think it might have been a little pressure from the division's investigator. She went out and purchased floor covering, but the interesting part is that when I walked in to do an inspection and make sure the issue was resolved, I saw that her entire living room was covered in green AstroTurf. She said that it was the only thing that didn’t trigger her allergies. I should’ve brought a putter.
Which just goes to show that whether it’s noise or pets, some problems require more out-of-the-box thinking and not just a straight legal solution.
There's always a little give-and-take between complaining parties and the parties who are being complained about. But yes, creative solutions work.