NEW YORK—Yesterday, a judge dismissed a Queens man’s lawsuit challenging the New York City Department of Buildings’ (DOB) byzantine process of punishing homeowners for even the most harmless code violations, stripping New Yorkers of their due process rights throughout. Joe Corsini and the Institute for Justice (IJ) filed the lawsuit in November 2020, after Joe was fined thousands of dollars for erecting a pigeon coop on his rooftop. Joe and IJ plan to appeal today’s decision.
“For far too long the Department of Buildings has issued predatory fines against everyday New Yorkers for minor offenses that nobody would consider dangerous,” said IJ Senior Attorney Bill Maurer. “Making matters worse, DOB prevents owners from appealing some of these fines while making it prohibitively expensive to appeal other fines. That is unfair and unconstitutional and that is why we will appeal today’s decision.”
Joe was originally fined $3,000 for moving the coop, because he was not aware he would need a permit to do so. Instead of giving up, Joe hired an architect and an attorney, and vowed to work with the city to bring the coop into compliance. However, the city continued to demand that Joe meet unreasonable standards, and continued to fine him as he attempted to work with them. By the time Joe finally gave up on bringing the coop into compliance, his fines had reached $11,000. To appeal this decision, Joe would have had to pay all the fines first and risk having them increase if he lost on appeal.
“I was absolutely shocked when DOB fined me thousands of dollars for doing something New Yorkers in all five boroughs do all the time—having a pigeon coop on my property,” said Joe. “The fact that DOB can issue these fines, continue to fine me while I attempt to work with them, and then give me no way to appeal, shows that the DOB wants money and will do everything it can to get it.”
Making matters worse, New York City has a financial incentive to saddle innocent New Yorkers with hefty fees, because these unreviewable fees go directly into the city’s general fund.
Joe is not alone in being a victim of this predatory fee scheme. IJ has another active case against DOB for fining a resident for a violation he did not commit and giving him no way to appeal. Additionally, every year, DOB issues thousands of tickets and fines for violations of the city’s codes and regulations, which are long, complex, and contained in three different sources. Some of these violations are issued to large developers for serious problems. No one denies that the city should protect public safety by enforcing its building code against skyscrapers and other major developments, but a growing number of tickets target ordinary homeowners who made inconsequential changes to their own property. For many of these tickets, the property owners cannot mount a defense and there is no appeals process. For other tickets, the property owner can defend themselves, but they cannot appeal a decision without first paying all fines the city has levied.
“New York City’s system gives New Yorkers one option when they get these unreviewable violations: pay,” said IJ Attorney Diana Simpson. “No process cannot be due process and we are hopeful that the U.S. Court of Appeals will see New York’s ticketing process for the unconstitutional scheme that it is.”