From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman: Civil Rights Lawsuits, part 5: Disabled person’s rights in public

An earlier lawsuit involving a tenant dispute and prejudice of a different sort came to me in June, 1983, when Miriam K. Lurie, a 79-year-old widow confined to a wheelchair because of a neurological disorder, consulted me about a threat of eviction from her co-op building. She had been living at 1 Kensington Gate in the Village of Kensington, Long Island, since the building had been built fourteen years earlier. It faced Middle Neck Road, a major north-south artery on the Great Neck peninsula, and had a circular driveway with an adjacent sidewalk and canopy.  Since taking ill, Mrs. Lurie would occasionally sit outside the front entrance of the building in her wheelchair, accompanied by her African-American attendant (who wore a white uniform), for perhaps fifteen minutes at a time, just to get some fresh air.  Although her wheelchair in no way impeded pedestrian or vehicular traffic, the building manager had told my client that she could no longer sit there because other tenants had complained that her presence there “made the building look like a nursing home.”  She next received a letter from the co-op’s attorney, threatening her with eviction if she continued her practice of sitting in front of the building.  That’s when Mrs. Lurie and her son asked to see me.

They were people of means, and the case was a matter of principle for them.  Mrs. Lurie’s father-in-law had published the Yiddish language newspaper Der Tog (The Day) which I remembered my father reading every day.  Her deceased husband, who had owned a very successful real estate mortgage business, had been the founder and first president of Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Great Neck, and Mrs. Lurie was a past president of that synagogue’s sisterhood. The clients were not anxious to start a lawsuit, but wanted to receive a letter telling them it was alright for Mrs. Lurie to continue to enjoy the fresh air in front of her building. Not only were we unable to secure such a letter, but the co-op added another claim and threatened her with the imminent commencement of eviction proceedings.

The co-op asserted that my client’s wheelchair fell under the rubric of “velocipedes,” which the house rules prohibited from the elevator, public halls, passageways, and any common areas in the building.  Such a claim was not only unreasonable but cruel and insensitive.  If a wheelchair was to be barred from the building, that should have been specifically set forth in the lease, which it wasn’t. Clearly, however, the co-op intended to act quickly, so we decided to seek a temporary restraining order and injunction to prevent the co-op from moving forward with eviction proceedings.  We also knew that the news media could prove helpful to us, so I sent them copies of the summons and complaint, along with 8×10 glossy photographs depicting my client in her wheelchair with her attendant beside her, all of which they published.  The co-op made a motion to dismiss our complaint, but the court ruled in our favor.  As a practical matter, this concluded the eviction.  Never did the co-op’s attorneys seek an additional hearing.

Mrs. Lurie’s son-in-law then wished to pursue the personal injury aspect of the case. As part of our original filings, we had asked for money damages for the mental and emotional harm done to this plaintiff.  The theory of our case was that the co-op had itself violated their proprietary lease guarantee to tenants of “quiet enjoyment” of their apartments and the building’s premises, and that the actions of the co-op also violated the disability provisions of the New York State Human Rights Law.  Actually, the law was not clear and we found no cases as precedent, although an analogous case had just been brought by the New York State Attorney General against the owners of an apartment building that contained a medical office where HIV/AIDS patients were being treated and tenants were ignorantly afraid of catching the disease.  When I called the Attorney General’s office to see if they had any more information that might prove helpful in my case, I was told theirs also was a case of “first impression” and that they, too, were trying to “make law.”

Mrs. Lurie had never seen a physician, psychiatrist, or psychologist in connection with her claimed injuries, and therefore our case was weak.  When the case was about to be called for trial, I received a call from a claims adjuster for the co-op’s insurance company. I had never spoken to him or heard his name, so it startled me that he said he wanted to settle the case.  Knowing that my case was weak, I could not understand his motives, but when I asked him why he was so intent on settling, he simply said, “You just listen to me; we gotta settle this.”

We started negotiating, and eventually settled for $19,500. Had my case been dismissed in the Mineola Supreme Court I would have had nowhere else to go with it, so any sort of settlement was a victory of sorts.  After the settlement, I got back to the claims person and asked him, out of curiosity, why he had been so anxious to settle a case that really didn’t look like much of a threat to the insurance company, and he told me a most interesting tale.  He referred me back to a case I once handled for an African-American woman who had been referred to me by the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights. She had been looking for an apartment for herself and her husband in Farmingdale, and when she visited one apartment that had been advertised she had been told that it was already rented.  She didn’t believe it and went to the Human Rights Commission, and they tested whether or not the apartment was still available by sending a white applicant to the apartment.  This white tester was offered the apartment — whereupon the Commission referred the client to me.

As it turned out, I settled the matter in less than fifteen minutes, and didn’t charge the client because it was a civil rights matter.  I don’t believe I even created a file for the case: I simply phoned the building manager, who happened to be the daughter of the owner of the building, and told her that I was representing the African-American woman to whom she had lied about the apartment no longer being available. I told the building manager that she had half an hour to offer that apartment to my client or else call her lawyer. Within a few minutes, she called back and said the apartment was available for my client, who moved in with her husband —and I never gave the case any more thought.

I was beginning to get the creeps when the insurance adjuster brought this case up, but he quickly explained that he was the husband of that applicant for the apartment, and that he and his wife were still living there.  What a small world! It just shows that you never know how such a case will turn out.  In fact, I could never figure out what the co-op’s lawyers had been thinking when they brought the case against Mrs. Lurie in the first place.  The co-op’s law firm was heavily connected with the Nassau County Republican Party and should have read the riot act to their clients, telling them how foolish their position was and advising them to cut their losses ahead of time.

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