It began with a request for a washing machine to accommodate a disabling sensitivity to laundry smells.
It exploded into a bitter three-year battle over disability accommodations.
And now, a disabled woman faces the prospect of being kicked out of her one-bedroom co-op in Brooklyn.
“I had the audacity to assert my legal right for a disability accommodation to protect my health,” said Jacqueline Peters, whose medical records show her health is worsened by airborne contaminants. “I could have just thrown myself off a cliff like the Vikings did with old people.”
In correspondence included in court filings, the co-op board at Caton Towers on Ocean Parkway has called Peters disruptive and objectionable, complaining that she complains too much.
“Your behavior is harassment and your conduct is objectionable,” the co-op’s lawyer, Theresa Racht, wrote to her. “You are . . . failing to live cooperatively with your neighbors.”
But the board won’t say exactly what Peters has done wrong, said her lawyer, Ian J. Brandt of Davidoff Hutcher & Citron.
“Did she break all the hallway lights with a baseball bat or threaten to stab the super with a pencil?” he said. “There is no itemization or detailing of any factual allegations against her.”
Peters, 49, says she was sickened 18 years ago by hidden mold when she lived in a rental that flooded just after she moved in. She increasingly suffered from joint pain, fatigue and asthma. Five years later, “a hole opened up in the ceiling and the next day my eyes were bright red,” she said.
Since then, Peters has had to leave her job working for a regulatory agency and go on disability due to a host of diagnoses — including dysautonomia, myalgic encephalomyelitis (sometimes called chronic fatigue syndrome), fibromyalgia, arthritis, mast cell disorder, peripheral neuropathy and herniated discs.
Doctor’s notes filed in court papers show that she is sensitive to smoke, fumes and dust — which cause migraines, burning eyes, sore throat, dizziness, fatigue and palpitations.
Peters has moved often in her quest for healthy housing. In 2019, she bought a one-bedroom at Caton Towers because the building was smoke-free.
“It is difficult to find a safe place to live when you have health issues,” she said.
Conflict over reasonable disability accommodations started early. Two weeks before moving in, Peters — who says she once collapsed from exposure to perfume — requested her own washing machine, to avoid the shared laundry room with its artificial smells and chemical residues. She provided a doctor’s letter.
As noted in court papers, “the co-op said they couldn’t allow me a washing machine because everyone else would want one,” she said, though she was later allowed a portable washing machine. “I didn’t even ask for a dryer.”
She also complained to management about cigarette-smoke smells indoors and on her balcony.
Just a few months after Peters arrived, the co-op’s lawyer, Racht, wrote to her: “You have bombarded management and building staff with unreasonable complaints and demands,” including complaints of scent and smoke.
The building has many “contiguous and adjacent neighbors” and was built “in or about 1964 with typical construction of the period . . . It is not a sound or odor/fume/scent/smoke proof building,” says a letter from another co-op lawyer, Steven S. Anderson of Anderson & Ochs.
Yet building rules prohibit “unreasonable” odors. Management also issued a notice urging residents to report violations of its smoking ban. The current rule bans marijuana and incense, too, with fines starting at $200.
“We believe we have acknowledged Ms. Peters’s disabilities and given her reasonable accommodations,” said Anderson. “She claimed we weren’t accommodating her disabilities. We claimed we were.”
The dispute is now on its fourth lawsuit.
The first legal action involved a conflict over a bathroom renovation in the unit above Peters, which included replacing the tub with a shower stall.
As COVID continued raging in late 2020, the co-op approved the plans without telling Peters that plumbers would need to break her bathroom wall to reach the P-trap drainpipe. The work would take an estimated two to seven days, during which Peters feared her apartment’s air would be contaminated.
“You do not have to get approval of your neighbors to do a renovation of any kind,” Racht said.
Peters — advised by an environmental expert that a bathroom hole could unleash mold — sought a disability accommodation. She asked that the co-op help her relocate temporarily and have her air quality monitored.
The co-op offered to arrange for a few days at a nearby hotel, court documents show. Peters stayed put. The plumbers upstairs tried a workaround that involved raising the shower floor, but the drain clogged.
“I have followed every rule and step required by the building and board,” the upstairs neighbor wrote to the management, as shown in court papers. “I have rights to renovate my bathroom as a shareholder and that is all I am asking to do.”
Later, the neighbor wrote, “I thought I was being incredibly accommodating in this matter . . . It feels like I am the only person making compromises here.” She termed the situation “incredibly frustrating.”
The couple upstairs spent five months taking showers at a neighbor’s place down the hall.
Meanwhile, Peters went on a quest for suitable interim housing — ideally, she said, she needed a furnished place that was cat-friendly, in a smoke-free building with a washing machine and no stairs. She ended up moving temporarily to “the only option I could find that allowed cats and was available in the required timeframe,” she said.
“Nobody questions that people with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations, but that doesn’t mean you get whatever you want,” Anderson said. “If you don’t want to live by the co-op’s rules, don’t buy in a co-op.”
Not so, Brandt said. “The purpose of a disability accommodation isn’t to treat everybody the same. People with disabilities are allowed to live in co-ops and are allowed exceptions to and modifications of rules and policies to enable them to use and enjoy the housing just as persons without disabilities do.”
The co-op says the drain project was appropriately monitored by an environmental consultant. Peters employed her own expert, whose reports, as filed in court, claim that airborne hazards lingered. So she delayed her return by more than four months, she said.
“I am very careful with the products I use in my home to avoid exposure to chemicals,” she said. “This is intentionally cruel, to not assure me my home would be safe when I returned to it.”
Now, court papers show that the co-op is seeking to auction off Peters’s shares.
“The co-op is trying to foreclose on her shares and lease without first obtaining an eviction, which is unheard of and illegal,” Brandt claimed.
The co-op lawyers disagree, saying they plan “to proceed with a lawful auction and, if necessary, there will be an eviction proceeding, none of which is either unheard of or illegal.”
Peters’s case is a “Pullman case,” named for the groundbreaking decision, 20 years ago, when a man named David Pullman was voted out of his Upper West Side co-op after accusations of objectionable conduct. That influential decision set a new standard that strengthened the power of co-op boards.
“The Pullman decision reduced the court’s standard review powers,” Brandt said. “There is no review of reasonableness.”
Meanwhile, Peters’s building began facade work as required by Local Law 11.
Court papers show that she sought information about the chemicals and sealants to be used, requesting that non-toxic alternatives be applied around her balcony. “These reasonable accommodation requests are painless for the co-op to respond to,” Brandt said. “We are not asking too much.”
The co-op refused to provide such information, according to court papers, and said that using different products would void the project’s 20-year warranty.
“Everything possible is done to minimize the negative impacts of exterior work,” said Racht, noting that filters were placed over each air conditioning vent. But Peters said the filtration was done poorly, with filters falling off.
Currently, the court has halted the co-op’s scheduled date to auction off Peters’s unit.
“Ms. Peters will have time to gather her belongings and can move in some reasonable time schedule,” Anderson said. “The co-op is not intending that she be thrown out in the street.”
Meanwhile, Peters said, “People with a disability should not have to go through all of these hoops to get an accommodation.” She is currently seeking a part-time or freelance job, possibly doing advocacy for health issues.
“I thought this apartment was going to be a new era of stability where I would finally get a chance to reclaim my life after over a decade of being sick,” Peters said. “Instead, it’s destroying everything I worked so hard to achieve.”