Installing Security Cameras Without Violating Privacy Rights
Q I'm considering installing security cameras in common-area hallways and in the building elevator. Will tenants be able to successfully sue me on the basis of invasion of privacy and harassment?
A No. Installing cameras in public spaces is unlikely to constitute “harassment” as defined by Rent Stabilization Code Section 2525.5. This provision provides that owners may not engage in “any course of conduct—which interferes with, or disturbs, or is intended to interfere with or disturb, the privacy, comfort, peace, repose, or quiet enjoyment of the tenant in his or her use or occupancy of the housing accommodation.”
However, notwithstanding the available legal protections, the well-established rule is that individuals retain a reasonable expectation of privacy within private areas of living space—not necessarily in public spaces, such as the common areas of residential buildings. These are generally defined by New York courts as “hallways, lobbies, vestibules, public telephone booths, stairwells, and any other areas used for ingress and egress where access is relatively uncontrolled.”
In addition, there are few restrictions on the use of a person's “name, portrait, or picture,” unless such use is commercially or fraudulently exploitive. New York Civil Rights Laws Sections 50 and 51 create a “right of privacy” and a “right of publicity,” making it a misdemeanor offense to use an individual's name, portrait, or picture for advertising or trade purposes without consent. But there's no corresponding New York law that extends a right of privacy to “non-fraudulent” and “non-commercial” use of one's picture or portrait. Therefore, surveillance in building common areas doesn't violate any “privacy right” currently recognized by New York law.
A recent court ruling shows how privacy and harassment claims by tenants fail. In the case, tenants sued the owner, claiming invasion of privacy and harassment. They claimed that the owner's installation of cameras in their building hallways caused an intentional infliction of emotional distress and was a violation of federal Civil Rights Law Sections 50 and 51. The court granted the owner's request to dismiss the case. The tenants had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the public hallways where the cameras were placed, and there was no claim that cameras were placed in any private rooms. Even if, as tenants claimed, the camera permitted views of apartments when the entrance doors were opened, this wasn't outrageous. Since there was no proof that the owner installed the cameras for an advertising or trade purpose, there was no Civil Rights Law violation [Otero v. Houston St. Owners Corp., February 2012].