Appeals court dismisses $185K in fines, damages against Benjamin Companies over ADA accommodations

Judicial panel found the construction of a wheelchair ramp for tenant would have been financial burden

20-17 18th Street in Astoria via Google Maps
20-17 18th Street in Astoria via Google Maps

A state appellate court last week dismissed a city agency’s $185,000 claim against the Benjamin Companies, 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.

The ruling, handed down March 30, theoretically settles roughly six years of legal wrangling between tenant Irene Politis, the city’s Commission of Human Rights, and Long Island-based Benjamin Companies. Landlords are required under the city’s Human Rights Law to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled tenants unless it causes undue financial hardship.

In 2008, Politis asked landlord Marine Holdings LLC, an entity controlled by the Benjamin Companies, to install a wheelchair ramp from the building’s stairwell to her first floor apartment at 20-17 18th Street, a building that is part of a housing complex with 441 Section-8 units.

Marine Holdings could not build a ramp on the stairs, so another idea was hatched — build a ramp out of Politis’ first floor window, converting it into an entrance. The landlord refused.

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In 2010, Politis, 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 Marine Holdings. A structural engineer testified 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 Marine Holdings and awarded $75,000 in damages to Politis. The fine was the highest penalty the commission had levied for a housing discrimination case, according to 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 landlord would have faced significant hardships in accommodating Politis. The city’s Law Department did not respond to requests for comment.

In December, the Garden City-based firm filed plans for a new seven-story mixed-use building spanning 105,000 square feet for its Arverne by the Sea development in Rockaway, Queens. The project features 2,300 homes, 120,000 square feet of retail space, and a 44,000 square foot YMCA.