NEW YORK—Serafim Katergaris was forced to pay $1,000 to the New York Department of Buildings (DOB) for a code violation he did not commit, did not know about and had no chance to challenge. Worse yet, the DOB did not let him appeal its decision. Had the DOB provided him a hearing or a chance to appeal, he would have shown that the violation was caused by a previous owner for a boiler that had been removed before he purchased the property—the precise type of facts that should relieve someone from responsibility for a fine. Sadly, this is a regular practice of the DOB. Today, Serafim joined forces with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a class-action lawsuit that aims to end New York City’s system of issuing fines to property owners while denying them a hearing or an appeal.
New York City requires property owners with certain kinds of boilers to have their boilers inspected annually and then file a report with the city regarding the inspection. When Serafim bought a home in Harlem in 2014, it did not have a boiler. The previous owner had removed it earlier that year, with the necessary permits and documentation filed with the DOB post-removal. However, the previous owner did not file an inspection report the year before he removed the boiler—something Serafim did not know because the DOB did not assess the violation until after he had purchased the property. The violation did not show up on a title search because the DOB takes up to two years to report violations. When Serafim went to sell the house in 2021, he learned for the first time of the missing 2013 report, that he would need to pay $1,000 for the previous owner’s mistake and that a current inspection would need to be completed—an impossible task for a long-gone boiler. Serafim asked for a hearing but was rebuffed; the DOB does not provide any avenue to challenge the fine or appeal it. His only option was to pay.
The DOB’s policy of issuing penalties that property owners cannot challenge or appeal is not limited to boiler reports. The DOB issues such penalties for all sorts of violations. In the past, the DOB has said that providing property owners with a hearing and a chance to appeal these violations would be too expensive and difficult for the city. So, instead, property owners must pay even when the owner has done nothing wrong, as in Serafim’s case.
“Issuing someone a fine without notice and then giving them no way to challenge it is a blatant violation of basic due process rights,” said IJ Senior Attorney Bill Maurer. “No single agency should be able to act as cop, judge and jury. The Constitution requires that everyone gets an opportunity to challenge their penalty in front of a neutral party—the fact that it costs the city money to comply with the Constitution does not mean that the DOB just gets to ignore it.”
Fortunately, Serafim has the means to pay the fine. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that DOB fined him for someone else’s mistake and gave him no means to fight back.
“This lawsuit isn’t about me, it’s about the basic principle that nobody should be punished without a hearing or a chance for an appeal. The city punished me for someone else’s mistake and then denied me a chance to point that out,” Serafim said. “This system is simply wrong, and I want to help ensure that other people don’t have to go through this.”
“DOB has an important role to play in protecting New Yorkers from dangerous conditions in buildings, but imposing fines on property owners without giving them a hearing or appeal leads to the city punishing innocent people instead of fixing actual threats,” said IJ Attorney Jared McClain. “It undermines public confidence and distracts the city from correcting actually dangerous conditions.”
IJ is the premier defender of property rights and has challenged excessive fines throughout the country, including a similar case where the DOB fined a man a total of $11,000 for building a pigeon coop; a case in Lantana, Florida, where a woman was fined $100,000 for parking in her own driveway; and a class action suit in Pagedale, Missouri, challenging a law that allows the city to fine people for very normal things like having a barbeque in their front yard or walking on the left side of the sidewalk.