Lawsuits Concerning Conditions in New York City Cooperative Buildings

The Wall Street Journal recently reported the filing of a lawsuit by “Law & Order” actress S. Epatha Merkerson concerning conditions in her New York City cooperative apartment. While the lawsuit has gained the attention of the press because it involves a celebrity, the conditions described in the lawsuit are commonly experienced by numerous New Yorkers.

The lawsuit alleges that the condition of the building’s roof caused leaks and mold conditions to the cooperative apartment owned by the actress. After the purchase of the cooperative apartment, the cooperative made repairs to the roof over the plaintiff’s apartment. Said repairs are alleged to have been insufficient, causing continued water leaks and mold to develop. The actress claimed that she was unable to live in the cooperative apartment, as well as being unable to sell the apartment or sublet it at market value.

Most of the claims in the lawsuit involve the statute known as New York State’s Warranty of Habitability Law. This law requires that residential premises be fit for human habitation and that residents not be subjected to conditions that are dangerous, hazardous or detrimental to their life, health or safety. The Warranty of Habitability Law is most commonly applied to rental apartments in New York State. Nonetheless, it is longstanding caselaw in New York State that the Warranty of Habitability Law also applies to cooperative apartments. The application of the Warranty of Habitability differs depending on the type of housing to which it is applied. For instance, if a condition is solely within the walls of the apartment and was not caused by an external factor, it is the responsibility of a cooperative shareholder individually. In a rental unit, the same condition would be the responsibility of the landlord, but not the tenant.

Warranty of Habitability cases often take the following course. A resident encounters unacceptable living conditions such as water leaks, mold, excessive noise, or foul odors and has attempted to resolve the condition with building management. If the condition persists, the resident will seek legal assistance and may have also withheld rent or maintenance payments or even moved out as a result. The landlord or cooperative may commence legal action for the withheld rent or maintenance, to which we are requested to respond.

Once a client contacts our firm , we will discuss all aspects of the conditions and payment and occupancy status. In some cases, we recommend that rent or maintenance payments be delivered to our firm to be held in escrow until the condition is resolved to our client’s satisfaction or when the Court orders that the monies be delivered to the landlord or the cooperative.

The potential to recover damages is also discussed with our clients. For example, the actress in the lawsuit discussed in this post claims lost opportunity to sell the apartment or to sublet it at fair market value. We would suggest that the real estate listing broker testify as to particular lost sales once potential purchasers were made aware of the physical conditions. Money damages in noise cases concerning warranty of habitability claims are more difficult, but not impossible, to prove. For instance, would a reasonable person be unable to sleep through excessive noise and not be able to go to work as a result, making for lost wages? In any event, if the resident wishes to continue to live in the apartment, the best resolution is usually to require the cooperative or landlord to repair or remove the condition effectively.

Our firm welcomes the opportunity to assist clients with respect to warranty of habitability claims.