September 5, 2012

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York today approved a settlement agreement between the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and a class of Housing Authority tenants with mobility impairments, many of whom have been trapped in, or left unable to reach, their apartments because of elevator outages in their buildings. The suit was brought in 2009 by the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) and pro bono attorneys with the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, working with Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, on behalf of disabled residents. Tenants were confined to their apartments for days at a time, forced to hobble down multiple flights of stairs in a leg brace, or stuck for hours in wheelchairs in building lobbies. The suit challenged NYCHA’s widespread and systemic failure to maintain its more than 3,300 elevators in operable working condition, asserting that NYCHA’s practices violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

NYLAG and Paul, Weiss lawyers worked with NYCHA over the course of three years to reach agreement on milestones for repairing and maintaining elevators. “What is critical about this settlement is that it requires NYCHA to meet measurable, quantifiable goals in improving elevator performance,” said Paul, Weiss litigation partner Andrew Ehrlich. “These practical benchmarks will ensure that we can monitor NYCHA’s performance and ensure that it lives up to its end of the bargain.”

Under the Agreement, NYCHA must prioritize repair of elevators where a building is left without any elevator service whatsoever. Within six months, NYCHA must repair 70% of all elevator outages within 8 hours of learning of the outage, and 90% within 24 hours. NYCHA must also ensure that the average number of elevator outages City-wide is not more than one outage per elevator per month. The Agreement further requires NYCHA to conduct rigorous preventive maintenance to help avoid elevator breakdowns. The Housing Authority also agreed to approve transfer requests from mobility-impaired tenants to lower floors, where they will be less affected by elevator outages.

“We are delighted that NYCHA has agreed to improve the elevator service it provides to its most vulnerable residents,” said Jane Greengold Stevens, NYLAG’s Director of Litigation. “Although everybody benefits from working elevators, they are especially critical to the health and safety of people with mobility impairments.

Over the next three years, NYCHA will report to Plaintiffs’ attorneys on its compliance with the Agreement. If NYCHA does not meet the goals in the Agreement, it can be forced to do so in Court. Plaintiffs’ attorneys can also alert NYCHA when they learn of specific class members who have been denied transfer requests or have suffered because of particularly problematic elevators. “We look forward to working with NYCHA over the coming years to make sure that they meet the crucial milestones in this Agreement,” Stevens added.

Borough President Stringer, who played a major supportive role in bringing the case, stated, “It’s about time. For far too long, NYCHA tenants with disabilities have been held hostage to the Housing Authority’s inability to repair, modernize or replace poorly functioning elevators. I’m proud to have worked with NYLAG and with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to help secure a settlement from the Housing Authority that will enhance the mobility of disabled tenants when elevators breakdown. I look forward to carefully monitoring NYCHA’s compliance with this settlement and will be in close contact with tenant leaders and advocates for the disabled to ensure that NYCHA keeps up its end of the agreement.”

Yisroel Schulman, NYLAG’s President and Attorney-in-Charge, spoke about the milestone: “This Agreement is a victory for all of NYCHA’s tenants, and represents another success in NYLAG’s continuing effort to improve the lives of low-income people with disabilities.”

The official case name and number are: Wilma Brito, et al. v. New York City Housing Authority, et al., Civ. No. 09-1621 (RRM) (RML) (E.D.N.Y.).

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Litigation Background

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) operates more than 2,600 buildings in the five boroughs with a total of nearly 180,000 apartments. The lawsuit is the first citywide class action suit brought against the Housing Authority challenging the Authority’s failure to adequately maintain its elevators, though there has been previous litigation about elevator operations in particular NYCHA developments.

NYLAG attorney Jane Greengold Stevens, with other legal services and Legal Aid attorneys, sued NYCHA in 1994 under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in an effort to force the Authority to provide reasonable accommodations to mobility impaired tenants in their own apartments and the common areas of their buildings. That case was settled in 2000, with the Authority agreeing to modify apartments for tenants with mobility impairments who requested accommodations and to make nearly 5,000 apartments accessible for residents with mobility impairments.