The Real Deal New York

Banned expeditor lobs federal suit accusing DOB of violating speech rights

Schnall claims agency's actions will have a "chilling" effect on criticism
By Kathryn Brenzel | May 16, 2017 05:00PM

From left: Rick Chandler, commissioner for NYC’s Department of Buildings and Scott Schnall (Credit: Getty Images)

The expeditor whom the Department of Buildings recently banned for life has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the city singled him out in order to silence further criticism of the agency.

Scott Schnall accuses the DOB of violating his freedom of speech and equal protection rights, alleging that the agency went after him as punishment for his speaking to the New York Times, according to a complaint filed in New York Federal Court. Schnall spoke to the Times in 2014 and was quoted calling the DOB “screwed up.”

He believes that the comment is the real reason his filing privileges were permanently revoked earlier this year. Schall claims that his punishment was intended to “serve as a warning to others who dared to criticize the department, chilling free speech.”

The DOB maintains that banning Schnall had nothing to do with the Times interview and everything to do with his violation of city construction and zoning codes. In February, the DOB found that Schnall knowingly or negligently lied on applications filed for six different properties in Brooklyn, including failing to indicate that the proposed work would change the use, occupancy or egress of the property. The DOB also accused Schnall of abusing its self-certification program, which allows certified professionals to skip full DOB review of permit applications.

Schnall, who has worked as an expeditor for 27 years, filed a similar lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court in March seeking to have his filing privileges reinstated. In the latest lawsuit, he’s seeking damages of at least $10 million.

In the new federal complaint, he asserts that an administrative law judge dismissed a majority of the DOB’s claims that he’d falsified applications. He also alleges that a majority of the projects that the DOB audited were approved by the agency, not by him through self-certification. The complaint also calls out a portion of the city’s Administrative Code as “fatally vague and overbroad” and in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the local law allows the DOB to refuse an application from a person who “knowingly or negligently made a false statement.” Schnall asserts that the zoning and construction codes are subject to various interpretations, meaning that punishment for violation of the codes is largely discretionary.

“What the city defendants may consider to be a ‘false’ statement in many instances is merely a disagreement over subjective legal interpretations — even among the department’s employees, ten plan examiners could give 10 different interpretations and answers,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit names the DOB, Commissioner Rick Chandler and Adam Wapniak, a former Queens deputy borough commissioner at the DOB, who testified at Schnall’s DOB trial. Schnall alleges that Wapniak wrongly solicited his clients for his own architecture business after the trial.

UPDATE: As of August 4,2017, Adam Wapniak is no longer a party in the federal and state lawsuits.