Dan King
Dan King · June 27, 2024

NEW YORK—Today, a New York City man who was fined $1,000 for a code violation he did not commit, did not know about, and had no chance to challenge, announced he will appeal a district court ruling dismissing his suit against the city’s system of issuing “unreviewable fines.” Serafim Katergaris, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), filed a class action lawsuit in 2022 challenging the Department of Buildings’ (DOB) long-running scheme of issuing fines for code violations and giving New Yorkers no way to appeal. The district court dismissed his suit for being filed too late, concluding that he should have filed by 2018, even though he didn’t learn about the violation until 2021.  

“Countless New Yorkers receive fines from the DOB for minor code violations – sometimes for violations they didn’t even commit – and are never given the chance to make their case in front of a court,” said IJ Senior Attorney Bill Maurer. “Worse yet, the court’s decision prevents New Yorkers from even being able to challenge this system if the city’s notices never reach them. Each and every person who receives a fine deserves not only the opportunity to have their case heard, but the right to know whether the government has accused them of doing something wrong in the first instance.” 

Serafim purchased a home in Harlem in 2014. Unbeknownst to him, the previous owner, who had removed the home’s boiler before selling the home to Serafim, failed to file a boiler inspection report with the city in 2013. This violation did not show up when Serafim conducted the title search, as DOB violations often take up to two years to be reported. When Serafim went to sell the home in 2021, he was told he would have to pay $1,000 for the previous owner’s mistake.  

Serafim never received notice of the previous owner’s violation and was given no means to appeal the fine, however. The city didn’t mail the notice of violation; rather, a vendor supposedly did, with hundreds of notices never reaching their intended targets.  Nonetheless, the district court assumed the mail reached Serafim. 

“I was punished for something I did not do through a violation I did not receive,” said Serafim. “This is about whether the city’s enforcement of its code is about making people safer or is it about fining people so the city can make money. If it is about making the city safer, the city would ensure that their notices get to the intended recipient. The court’s decision allows the city to continue to issue violations to people who have done nothing wrong and who may not learn that the city has fined them until years later.”   

In Monday’s opinion, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York did not rule on the merits of Serafim’s claims. Instead, the court assumed the city had properly mailed Serafim a notice about the fine in 2015, so the statute of limitations for Serafim to bring his lawsuit ran out in 2018.  

“The idea that the government gets every benefit of every doubt is absurd,” said IJ Attorney Diana Simpson. “The city’s violation process is unconstitutional and its notice process a disaster, and Serafim should not be the one bearing the burden of the city’s mistakes. We look forward to making it clear to the court of appeals that Serafim is well within his rights to bring this case.”