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Firm News: co-op and condo

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LANDLORDS  AND SECONDHAND SMOKE COMPLAINTS:
THE  APPELLATE DIVISION CLEARS THE AIR

By Joseph Rapice and Arthur P. Xanthos

This Firm recently won a successful appeal concerning whether a co-op has an obligation to guarantee an odor free apartment for a shareholder.  The appellate decision, Reinhard v. Connaught Tower Corporation, is available on this website under Publications.

Shareholder-tenant Susan Reinhard sued her co-op, the Connaught Tower Corporation, alleging that a cigarette smoke odor condition rendered her apartment uninhabitable for nine years, thereby forcing her to live in another premises.  Prior to trial, plaintiff had made a settlement demand of $600,000.00, essentially making settlement impossible and forcing a trial.

At a three-day non-jury trial, plaintiff testified that she, her family, and a close family friend smelled cigarette smoke in the apartment on a handful of occasions over a nine year period, although the source of the odor was never identified.  Plaintiff also proffered the testimony of an expert industrial hygienist, who testified that air passageways existed behind the walls in plaintiff’s apartment, implying that offensive odors could have been entering the apartment via those passageways.  The industrial hygienist also testified that he too smelled a smoke odor in the apartment during his inspections. 

In defense, we noted at trial that plaintiff’s expert, although he could have done so, failed to do a nicotine test.  We pointed out as well via cross-examination that such tests are inexpensive and easy to do.  We further demonstrated that without such objective testing and data, plaintiff could show no threshold amounts of any toxin (i.e.,secondhand smoke) in the apartment.   Essentially, we proved that the only objective evidence presented by plaintiff was that yielded by her nose – she smelled something she did not like.

At trial we also introduced other critical facts: plaintiff was a full time resident of Connecticut, never actually inhabited her apartment, and instead desired to use the apartment as a Manhattan pied a terre.

Despite these facts, the trial court ruled that the co-op had breached the proprietary lease and the statutory warranty of habitability, thereby constructively evicting Plaintiff.  The trial court awarded plaintiff a full return of nine years of maintenance payments in an amount of $120,000.00, and an award of attorneys fees.  In so ruling, the trial court found that “significant cigarette smoke permeates and pollutes the apartment,” that the apartment was “infiltrated by secondhand smoke”, and that the apartment was “smoke-polluted.” We appealed that decision.

On May 4, 2017, the Appellate Division First Department unanimously reversed the trial court’s decision, dismissed plaintiff’s complaint in its entirety, and awarded attorneys’ fees to our client – the co-op.  The appellate court held that the evidence failed to show that the subjective odor of cigarettes on a few occasions over nine years rendered plaintiff’s apartment uninhabitable.  Critically, the appellate court reasoned that plaintiff failed to show that the alleged odor was present on a consistent basis and that it was sufficiently pervasive as to affect the health and safety of the occupants. (The Court also noted that plaintiff lived in Connecticut and only intended to stay in the apartment occasionally.) 

The Reinharddecision marks a significant victory for building owners, cooperatives, and condominium boards, as well as for their insurers.  The trial court’s ruling had temporarily opened a Pandora’s Box with regard to habitability claims, as it seemed to imply that a tenant need only claim a subjective odor to recover a full rent abatement.   (Indeed, this Firm had seen an uptick in smoke odor cases following that decision.)  The Appellate Division First Department’s decision, however, reaffirmed two rules: (i) that a plaintiff-tenant must present objective evidence of the presence of a toxin, a threshold level of it, and proof of a causal connection to health and safety of an occupant; and (ii) that a claim based upon the habitability of an apartment dwelling requires proof that the plaintiff occupied the dwelling. 


                                                                                                                -5/9/17
Arthur Xanthos, attorneys fees, co-op and condo, Joseph Rapice, landlord, premises liability, proprietary lease, secondhand smoke, tenant, toxic tort, warranty of habitability

Mold Up in the Air: Settled, by Arthur Xanthos

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Our January 16, 2014 entry entitled “Mold Up in the Air” discussed the pending appeal of Cornell v. 350 West 51st St. Realty LLC, a case which concerned whether a plaintiff could get to a jury on her claim that indoor residential mold caused her respiratory injuries. We pointed out that the Court of Appeal’s questioning at oral argument portended a potential reversal and defeat for mold plaintiffs. And that is in fact what has happened. The Court of Appeals (2014 NY Slip Op 02096) granted the defendant landlord and coop summary judgment, and dismissed the bodily injury claims of the Cornell plaintiff. The decision is a difficult read, but the lessons yielded are clear.

Some background: the plaintiff in Cornell alleged that throughout her occupancy of a co-op apartment, the co-op building's "basement was in a wet, damp, musty condition"; that the radiator in her apartment's living room "leaked on numerous occasions" and "continued to leak and also released steam into the Apartment" despite the co-op’s attempts at repair; that in July 2003 she first noticed and notified the co-op that "there was mold growing in the [apartment's] bathroom," but the co-op "ignored" this condition; and that beginning in the first week of October, 2003, the landlord and/or its contractor performed demolition and/or construction work in the basement of the co-op building, permitting noxious dust, dirt, mold and debris to be released, which infiltrated her first-floor apartment.  What were her injuries? The Cornell plaintiff claimed that "[i]mmediately after" the landlord and/or its contractor performed the work in the basement, she became dizzy, disoriented, covered with rashes, unable to breathe, light-headed, congested, experienced tightness in her chest, had severe headaches, had shortness of breath, had a metallic taste in her mouth, and experienced other physical symptoms.

At the Frye hearing (brought on by defense motion), the defendants used an immunologist/epidemiologist who assessed plaintiff’s claim that "a significant portion of her physical and psychological problems is related to adverse reactions stemming from exposures to molds," and, after review of her medical records and the relevant science, opined with reasonable medical certainty that there was no relationship between the medical problems experienced by Ms. Cornell and exposures to molds (i.e., no specific causation). The defendants’ expert also opined that a causal relationship between indoor residential mold and Ms. Cornell’s injuries was not generally accepted in the medical community (i.e., no general causation).

Plaintiff’s medical expert opined to the contrary, and pointed to numerous studies that supported an association between indoor residential mold and illness. But as the Court of Appeals explained, “studies that show an association between a damp and moldy indoor environment and the medical conditions that [plaintiff's medical expert] attributes to Cornell's exposure to mold (bronchial-asthma, rhino-sinusitis, hypersensitivity reactions and irritation reactions of the skin and mucous membranes) do not establish that the relevant scientific community generally accepts that molds cause these adverse health effects.” (The causation/association battle line was explained in detail in our January 16 entry.)

The Court of Appeals could have ended its decision there (since without proof of general causation, plaintiff must be turned away), but it went further: even assuming that the plaintiff in Cornell demonstrated general causation, she did not show the necessary specific causation. (For a theory of causation to survive under Frye, both prongs of causation – general and specific – must be proved.) The Court of Appeals decision alludes to the fact plaintiff failed to show specific causation because she did not set forth “exposure to a toxin, that the toxin is capable of causing the particular illness and that plaintiff was exposed to sufficient levels of the toxin to cause the illness (specific causation)." The Cornell plaintiff’s expert had tried to prove specific causation by differential diagnosis. The Court of Appeals dismissed that attempt: “Differential diagnosis, of course, 'assumes general causation has been proven'". This last pronouncement is of incredible importance to the defense of toxic tort claims, as the number of clinicians who use differential diagnosis to support an opinion on causation is legion.

This Firm already has had opportunity to use the Cornell decision at the trial court level to our client’s advantage (see Benton v 80 Cranberry Street, in “Publications” above).  Absent a major change in the science of mold illness, there is every reason to believe the next few years will see many more summary judgment decisions in favor of land owners and against mold plaintiffs.

                                                        APX 8/6/14
Arthur Xanthos, causation, co-op and condo, condominiums, Cornell v. 360 W. 51st Realty, Court of Appeals, Fraser, Frye, lawsuit, mold, mold litigation, personal injury, premises liability, tenant, toxic tort

Noises Off, by Arthur Xanthos

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What is a Co-op obligated to do when one shareholder-tenant complains that another shareholder-tenant is too noisy? Consider the following: Shareholder-tenant on 4th floor sues Co-op and shareholder-tenant on 5th floor. The complaint alleges that the 5th floor tenants are unreasonably noisy, and that the Co-op has failed to resolve it. As real estate development in New York City continues to accelerate, such complaints are becoming commonplace.

Co-ops are landlords, so by law they are deemed to have warranted to tenants that the premises are habitable. An unreasonably loud building obviously can make an apartment uninhabitable. But what if the ‘noise’ complained of is caused by another shareholder-tenant? Further, what if the noise is sporadic, or difficult to record or measure objectively? Such cases pose nettlesome problems for co-ops, managing agents, and their carriers, because money damages are often not the primary goal of the plaintiff. How do you resolve a claim where the plaintiff wants peace and quiet, the defendant-tenant argues that the noise is the natural by-product of a happy, busy family life, and the Co-op cannot control the noise or the plaintiff’s reaction to it?

In our practice, we have seen or suggested several, non-orthodox settlement possibilities: (1) The Co-op can pass and enforce more stringent carpeting and padding rules; (2) Subject to cost, the Co-op can invest in soundproofing materials at the ceiling, floor, or wall interfaces; (3) The parties can explore an apartment swap, or a buyout/sale; (4) The Co-op can monitor noise (via a property manager or superintendent) and assess reasonable fines based on violations of a well-defined noise policy; and (5) If warranted and authorized under the proprietary lease, the Co-op can attempt a dispossess proceeding based on the offending tenant creating a nuisance. See, e.g., Domen v. Aranovich, 1 N.Y.3d 117 (2003). Failing resolution, a strong summary judgment motion on behalf of the Co-op is imperative, keeping in mind that as recently as a few days ago the First Department kept a Co-op in a lawsuit while dismissing the offending, noisy tenant from the case! Brown v Blennerhasset Corp., 2014 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 188, 1-3 (1st Dept. Jan. 14, 2014).

                                                                                                   -APX 1/17/14
Arthur Xanthos, board of directors, Brown v. Blennerhasset, co-op and condo, noise complaints, premises liability, proprietary lease, real estate, tenant, warranty of habitability