Case Notes in

Alterations

First published: Feb 2020
Wachtel v Park Ave & 84th St., Inc.

This case raises a number of interesting issues for both boards and purchasers. As a purchaser, it is important that you do your due diligence, although it is not clear typical diligence could have helped these purchasers. There are representations that should be requested in a contract, but there is no indication here that the seller even knew there was an issue with the entrance or with the share allocation. Moreover, it is unlikely that any lawyer would seek to look at minutes going back 40 years, nor is it very likely that a managing agent would provide them. Having said that, the ADA-non-compliant step was obviously in place, and the purchaser could have inquired about it and retained an architect to look into DOB records. Although it is somewhat beside the point of this case, it is important to remember that someone purchasing a even a small home outside of Manhattan will have a home inspection, yet someone buying a far more costly apartment will often do no physical or architectural diligence at all. While it may cost more in the short term, asking an architectural professional to look at an apartment and public records might save money in the long term. As to the share-allocation issue, the court was able to rely on the business judgment of the board in part because the board had records that showed that the determination concerning the share allocation was made in accordance with proper corporate governance. This is important. Boards should make determinations at board meetings; minutes of those meetings should accurately reflect what took place; and those minutes should be maintained.

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First published: Dec 2018
Perrault vs. Village Dunes Apt. Corp.

There are some co-op proprietary leases and condo bylaws that require that certain acts of the board be reasonable or that its consent not be unreasonably withheld. These are found most often in provisions concerning alterations and the establishment of house rules, or other rules and regulations. When reasonableness language is present, the burden is on the cooperative or condominium to demonstrate that its acts were “reasonable.”

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First published: Dec 2017
Matter of Steinberg-Fisher v North Shore Towers Apts., Inc.

Alteration work that drags on with no end in sight is a problem in all buildings. Neighbors are disturbed by noise, odors, and workers, and building systems (especially elevators) often endure additional strain. On the other hand, if a shareholder is physically or psychologically incapable of complying with policies, the policies must be reasonably modified. It seems this case is one where the courts would have liked to see the parties engage in an “interactive process.” It is a construct often used in employment cases, where the parties collaborate to arrive at a solution acceptable to all. It has been applied in the housing context for the last several years, and it appears that the court here was indeed bothered that the parties went, almost immediately, into “litigation mode.” It seems Steinberg-Fisher wanted unlimited time, and the board was unwilling to budge from the 90-day limit. When a reasonable accommodation is requested – especially one, as here, in which the need for some accommodation appears to be unchallenged – it is important that the parties speak with one another in an attempt to find a solution acceptable to all. That approach can often obviate the need to involve the DHR or the courts altogether, which is always preferable.

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First published: Sep 2017
Moltisanti v. East Riv. Hous. Corp.

An important issue in this case was whether either party was likely to succeed on the merits – a necessary element for the granting of a preliminary injunction. The lower court determined that Moltisanti would probably prevail because of the actions taken by the board. The appellate court, however, demurred, finding instead that the board’s actions created issues of fact, meaning that the case had to go to trial for resolution. Although Moltisanti v. East River Housing Corporation will not be the final word on this subject, we remind boards that they may not be able to rely on a proprietary lease clause if the cooperative, through its board or agent, violates that provision. We cannot stress often enough the need to comply with governing documents and procedures.

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First published: Jul 2017
Coliseum Tenants Corp. v. Benmark

This case is an important reminder to purchasers: always do your due diligence. Purchasers may want to review DOB records and have their lawyer get as much information as possible from the managing agent – not just what can be gleaned from board minutes. If a purchaser suspects an alteration may have been performed without appropriate permits and sign-offs, it would be prudent to obtain from the cooperative written confirmation that the alteration work was done with consent, or an indemnity from the seller, should an issue involving a previous alteration arise. Further, this case highlights the importance of properly maintaining records. We believe this problem will be minimized given the data programs available and the current practice of scanning most documents electronically. Finally, although it is not discussed in depth in the decision, Benmark was using the apartment for short-term rentals, in violation of the law and therefore the lease and building rules. There is no discussion as to whether Benmark has ceased that practice.

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First published: Dec 2012
Cogut v. 1220 Park Avenue Corporation and Brown Harris Stevens, LLC

This case reminds us that agreements entered into between shareholders and their co-op boards are contracts and the courts will treat them as legally binding. It has long been the law that one is presumed to have read what one signs. Plaintiffs’ argument that they had not read the final version of the alteration agreement before signing it was of no moment. Nor could they successfully argue that they reasonably relied on the managing agent’s alleged representations that the agreement was substantially the same as the prior version the plaintiffs had signed. As to electricity, boards do have the discretion to take the needs of all shareholders into consideration when deciding how to allocate services such as electricity. Plaintiffs’ claim that increased amperage had been approved in their alteration application was belied by documentary evidence. Importantly, boards also have the right – found in statute and case law – to rely on the advice of their experts. Finally, although we have seen other decisions where the court did not permit liquidated damages, the court here upheld the liquidated damages provisions of the alteration agreement, rejecting arguments that they should be invalidated as an impermissible penalty. The court specifically noted that the amounts charged – $250/day for the first five days; $500/day for the next five days; and $1,000/day thereafter – were not unconscionable or in violation of public policy, particularly given the scope of the project.

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First published: Sep 2009
Batsidis v. Wallack Management Co. Inc., et al.

The shareholder and co-op entered into an alteration agreement that required the shareholder to pay all of the corporation’s costs associated with the shareholder’s proposed alteration. The appellate court recognized that the provision was intended to insure that other shareholders of the co-op were not required to pay charges directly attributable to a single shareholder’s renovations. Importantly, the court drew a distinction between the provisions of the alteration agreement and proprietary lease where the lease typically requires a shareholder to pay the co-op’s legal fees in the event of litigation between the co-op and a shareholder. In the case of the lease, the court explained, public policy considerations must be taken into account so that people are not dissuaded from seeking “judicial redress of wrongs.” This is not a concern when a shareholder and a co-op contract through an alteration agreement to require a shareholder to pay costs associated with issues directly related to a particular apartment. Query whether a proprietary lease should be amended to specifically permit a co-op to charge back shareholders for professional fees incurred in connection with a specific apartment in the absence of litigation.

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First published: Apr 2009
Mark Hotel LLC v. Madison 77th LLC.

Once again, the court reviewed and upheld the clear terms of the contract between the parties. Of particular interest was the landlord’s attempt to declare the lease provision invalid by asking the court to apply the provisions of the Condominium Act to a request to convert premises to cooperative ownership. As the appellate court properly noted, the two are distinct and separate forms of ownership. While the Condominium Act applies to condominiums (which requires residential real property to be owned in fee simple), the court correctly explained that it does not apply to cooperatives, in which shareholders own stock in a corporation owning real estate, which permits them to live in a specific apartment pursuant to a proprietary lease. Moreover, the court made it clear that the landlord’s attempt to delay a review of the tenant’s alteration plans until the tenant agreed that it would not seek to convert the building to luxury hotel cooperative units would not be permitted. The lease gave the landlord a final five-day opportunity to submit its objections to the renovations and specifically provided that, absent such objections, approval is deemed given. Thus, the court found that when the landlord failed to object, it could not preserve a right to object at a later date, i.e., when the tenant agreed that it would not convert the building to cooperative units. Finally, the term “owner” as used by the Department of Buildings, must be reviewed by all cooperatives and condominiums. Although this case relied on an interpretation of the administrative code, we note that new DOB rules, in effect as of August 4, 2008, may require buildings to change their practices concerning who may sign certain permit applications as “owner.”

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First published: May 2005
Arnold v. No 24 Gramercy Park Inc.

The co-op had granted Arnold permission to alter his apartment and install a central air conditioning system. When the co-op board members had second thoughts about this installation, they acted as if the permission was conditional and revocable despite any evidence that this was the case. Levandusky was no defense for the board’s breach of contract liability. This was not a case where the business judgment rule could protect the board’s efforts to alter the consent. Perhaps most significantly, the decision here holds that the shareholder may recover his legal fees from the co-op because of a statutory provision in the Real Property Law for the benefit of tenants. This should give other co-op boards pause before trying to alter binding contracts with shareholders.

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First published: Apr 2004
Babeli v. East 13th Street Tenant Corp.

Once a shareholder in a co-op embarks upon an apartment alteration with co-op approval, it is very difficult to stop such alteration without a clear and compelling reason as long as the work is proceeding as authorized. In other words, once an apartment alteration is approved, a co-op does not have the option of changing its mind and stopping the work.

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