Appeals Court Dismisses $185K in Fines Against Owner over ADA Accommodations

A state appellate court recently dismissed the city’s Commission of Human Rights’ $185,000 claim against an owner, finding that the landlord was just in denying a paraplegic tenant a wheelchair ramp to her first-floor Astoria apartment because the costs were too burdensome.

Owners are required under the city’s Human Rights Law to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled tenants unless it causes undue financial hardship. In 2008, a tenant asked the owner to install a wheelchair ramp from the building’s stairwell to her first-floor apartment. The owner could not build a ramp on the stairs, so another idea was proposed to build a ramp out of the tenant’s first floor window, converting it into an entrance. The owner refused.

In 2010, the tenant, who has been bound to a wheelchair since 1979, filed a complaint with the city’s Commission of Human Rights over the lack of accessibility. The next year, the matter went before an administrative law judge, who ruled in favor of the owner. A structural engineer testified that the window-entrance project was “financially infeasible” and there was a “slew of structural issues” with building the ramp, according to the decision.

But in 2012, the Commission of Human Rights rejected the administrative law judge’s report and imposed a civil penalty of $125,000 to the owner and awarded $75,000 in damages to the tenant. The fine was the highest penalty the commission had levied for a housing discrimination case, according to a commission spokesperson.

A Queens Supreme Court judge upheld the fine in 2013, but cut the damages down to $60,000. Last week, the Appellate Division dismissed the case, finding that the owner would have faced significant hardships in accommodating the tenant.

Further reading: For guidance on handling tenant requests for accommodations and modifications, see “Five Rules for Handling Reasonable Accommodation and Modification Requests,” available to subscribers here.