How Do I Maintain a Co-op Board Accountable for Discrimination?

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How Do I Hold a Co-op Board Accountable for Discrimination?

Q: My partner and I filed an application to buy a cooperative in Dumbo, but the board turned us down, despite our solid finances and a top-notch board package. Our agent told us it was up to our dogs, even though the cooperative is animal friendly and we have submitted numerous character references for the dogs. I suspect another reason: the day before the cancellation, we were asked to submit a family photo. I think they turned us down because I'm a colored person and covered in tattoos. What legal recourse do we have?

A: A cooperative board of directors can reject an applicant without giving reasons, as long as the reason is not discriminatory or the responsibility of a member of the board of directors. However, since the board does not have to disclose why they rejected your application, it will be difficult for you to prove that the decision violates the fair living rules.

"Discrimination is difficult to prove – not impossible, but difficult to prove – unless you have witnesses willing to testify or some kind of documentary evidence," said Steven D. Sladkus, real estate attorney and partner at Schwartz Sladkus Reich law firm Greenberg in Manhattan Atlas.

Start by filing a complaint with the New York Human Rights Commission as housing discrimination is under the city's human rights law. You can also file a complaint with the state human rights department. Both agencies would investigate your claim and you could be awarded damages. Your next step would be to call an attorney and file a case yourself. The board would have to disclose their reasoning in the lawsuit and if you win you could be awarded damages. However, litigation is long and expensive, and there is no clear path to victory.

The good news is that change may be on the way. Westchester recently passed law requiring cooperatives to disclose reasons for rejecting buyers and to file the information with the district's Human Rights Commission. The boards of directors must also explain the minimum financial requirements to potential buyers. The state Senate is considering similar laws with a bill in the committee that will provide "a single process for reviewing applications" and limiting the time limit for review of an application by a committee.

For now, however, your options are limited by how far you are willing to pursue this problem.

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