Fair to Taxpayers? Rockland Suffers Expensive Loss in Fair Housing Case

Over 20K down the drain as taxpayers foot the bill for legal expenses in condo squabble

In 1968 the United States Congress passed the Fair Housing Act. The primary purpose of this legislation is to protect the buyer/renter of a residence from a seller/landlord’s discrimination.

The law makes it unlawful to refuse to sell, rent to, or negotiate with any person because of that person’s inclusion in a protected class. Race, gender, national origin and financial status were the primary “classes” that Congress sought to protect. Rockland County has also implemented a law that is known as the Rockland County Fair Housing Law which is substantially identical to the federal legislation.

Last week, the Appellate Division, Second Department in Brooklyn issued an opinion involving a local violation of both laws that makes one wonder if the law is being properly enforced. The case of Matter of Sussex Condominium III v. County of Rockland Fair Housing Board shows how the law is being handled.

In July, 2007, a 79-year-old resident of Sussex Condominiums in Nanuet underwent a hip replacement surgery. One month later, during his recovery, the resident requested that hand railings be installed along the common walkways leading from the private residences to the street.

The matter was discussed at a condominium board meeting but, in the face of opposition from other condo owners, it was never brought to a vote. Thereafter, when the condominium board took no action, the resident made a complaint to the Rockland County Fair Housing Board. The resident alleged that the condo board engaged in unlawful discrimination by not acting on the request for railings.

Initially, the County Fair Housing Board held a hearing in which it determined that the resident was disabled within the meaning of the law and required the condominium owners to install the handrails. The owner of the condo then commenced an action in Rockland County Supreme Court to review and overturn the housing board’s determination. The judge in Supreme Court agreed with the county and ordered the condominium to install the railings. Thereafter, the condominium appealed the determination to the Appellate Division for the Rockland County Supreme Court.

The appellate court reversed the county’s decision. The appellate court found that the county’s determination was flawed since no evidence was adduced at the hearing as to whether the resident ever requested permission to install the railings at his own expense. Without such evidence, there can be no discrimination.

During the entire legal process including the hearing, Supreme Court litigation and the subsequent appeal, the County Fair Hearing Board was represented by the County Attorney’s office. It is estimated that a minimum of $20,000 in time and resources was spent by the county in this case.

In this time of fiscal uncertainty and when the county is facing massive cuts and layoffs, it makes us wonder if the county’s decision to spend so much money over handrails is a proper exercise of resources. When there is a clear violation of fair housing laws, the county should be there to protect those that the law was designed to protect. However, when the county uses taxpayer dollars to get involved in minor scuffles between an owner and a condominium, we all pay for it in increased tax dollars.

Is this action by the county fair to all the residents of Rockland that pay taxes?

Tell us if you think the county handled this scenario properly. Log onto www.rocklandcountytimes and proceed to the Legal Watch section to comment.