Enough is Enough: Federal Suit Demands New York City Housing Authority Fix Its Elevators

A lawsuit was filed in the United States Court for the Eastern District of New York on April 21, 2009 to force the New York City Housing Authority to repair and maintain its more than 3,300 elevators. The lawsuit cites numerous occasions when NYCHA buildings are completely without elevator service. The lawsuit also describes instances when these buildings have only one working elevator, leaving residents waiting in long lines to use the functioning car. Other frequent malfunctions cited include elevator doors without sensors, elevators which fail to stop at particular floors, or which stop above or below floor level, making entrance or exit difficult for residents who use wheelchairs or walkers.

The lawsuit also alleges that residents often must wait hours or days for NYCHA to make repairs, and that the elevators typically break almost immediately after having been repaired. Attorneys working on the case note that for people with disabling mobility impairments, broken elevators deprive residents of the full use and benefit of their homes. Those residents are rendered effectively homeless when they return home and find that they cannot access their apartment for hours, if not days because the elevator in their building is broken. Such residents can also be trapped in their homes by malfunctioning elevators a terrifying prospect to those who suffer from serious medical conditions that may require care at a moments notice.

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. The suit was filed by the New York Legal Assistance Group and the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, working with Borough President Stringer.

The suit alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Housing Authority of violating Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the New York State and New York City Human Rights laws. The suit asks the court for a permanent injunction ordering the Authority to
(1) maintain its elevators in operable working condition by repairing, modernizing and where necessary replacing its elevators, and
(2) provide accommodations for disabled residents while elevators are not working.

A 2008 study by Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) elevators found that 75% had failed routine inspections over the previous five years. According to the Borough President’s report last fall, Chelsea Houses, where plaintiff Phyllis Gonzalez lives, had a failure rate of 92.9 per cent for elevator inspections in the previous five years.

In February of 2008 Ms. Gonzalez suffered a respiratory attack at 3 a.m., and had to wait while her daughter ran down 12 flights of stairs to get the elevator, which at that time would only work if called from the building lobby. Due to this delay, Ms. Gonzalez collapsed before the elevator finally arrived and required emergency medical treatment. 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.

Of course, elevator accidents are not unique to public housing. Just last week, on May 1, the body of 67-year-old legally blind Sheldon Scott was found at the bottom of an elevator shaft in his building at 25 Knolls Crescent, in the Spuyten Duyvil neighborhood in the Bronx. Authorities said that a faulty elevator door allowed Mr. Scott to step into an empty shaft and fall to his death. City inspectors discovered that a mechanism that prevents riders from pulling open an outer door until the elevator car arrives had failed.

The New York City Buildings Department has issued one violation, as well as a cease-use order for the elevator. Once Mr. Scott opened the door, he fell about 15 feet. The medical examiner’s office said an autopsy found he died of blunt impact to his head and torso, and it ruled the death an accident.

After the accident, a truck from McGlynn Hays Elevator Company was parked in front of the co-op while men did repairs in the basement. The building had been cited for 14 elevator violations since 1991, including three that were dismissed on Wednesday, according to a city Web site.

A separate complaint logged Thursday from a caller reporting Scott’s death includes a notation saying, “shaft open/unguarded.” Residents told The Riverdale Press that the buildings elevators have long been plagued by malfunctions, including shaky elevator cars and doors that open for no reason from the inside, exposing the shaft. They had long feared an accident would occur.

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