Legal Aid files lawsuit over unsafe conditions
Mold was everywhere – at least 30 square feet of it – in the inspected Legal Aid offices at 111 Livingston in Downtown Brooklyn. The building also houses the Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center (BEOC), where PSC members have complained about mold and air quality issues for years.
“We have a very dismissive administration. Whatever you say, they are going to dismiss,” said Darron Henry, the PSC chapter chair at BEOC. Henry, who has been at the center for two decades, said the chapter has brought up concerns about mold in vents, on chairs, and on keyboards and the administration’s typical response has been denial.
“We’re going to say, ‘It’s mold,’ and they’re going to say, ‘It’s not mold,’” Henry said.
MOLD IN OFFICES
The BEOC administration will claim the mold is from leftover food or dirt from plants, members told Clarion. Nonetheless, “They’ll clean it, and they’ll clean it quickly,” Henry said. But how they cleaned it, members are left guessing. Was bleach used? Were some other chemicals used? Henry’s questions to the BEOC administration about its remediation process remain unanswered.
BEOC chapter leaders raised their concerns at an April 11 labor-management meeting with City Tech, the CUNY college responsible for administering the BEOC. (Every educational opportunity center is administered by a CUNY college.) The City Tech president seemed to indicate that the health and safety issues at BEOC are not the college’s responsibility. The chapter is organizing its members, and the PSC leadership is pushing for a meeting with CUNY Central.
Clarion contacted the BEOC management for a response about the mold issues in their offices, but did not receive a response by press deadline.
In the Fall of 2021, when BEOC staff returned to partial in-person work, they found mold living in all kinds of places: on dry erase board erasers, on chairs, inside printers, on walls and on a corkboard, said a PSC member at the center. Members reported the issues to the administration, but say they often don’t know if an issue has been resolved, how it was fixed, or if there were any preventative measures taken.
In October 2021, at the Legal Aid offices in the same building, a New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH) inspector found visible black, grey and white mold colonizing furniture, books and walls, and black mold on the ceiling near the HVAC diffuser panel, according to court documents filed by the Legal Aid Society. The DOH issued a violation and a commissioner’s order in early October, notifying the Leser Group, the landlord for 111 Livingston, to determine the source(s) of mold and eliminate conditions leading to its proliferation by retaining the services of an HVAC technician and a mold remediator by the end of the month.
The DOH found in follow-up inspections in November that the issues were not fixed, and the DOH issued multiple summons to the Leser Group for noncompliance, including a second amended order. The Legal Aid Society occupies floors 6 through 11 of the Downtown Brooklyn high-rise and BEOC offices and classrooms are a few floors below them, occupying the entire first, second, third and parts of the fourth floor.
In March 2022, the Legal Aid Society constructively terminated their lease, and filed a lawsuit against 111 Livingston LLC, alleging that the landlord allowed “its systems and elevators to fall into a dangerous state of disrepair.” The underlying cause of the mold issues, the legal documents state, is an HVAC system in a “dilapidated and failed state,” the same HVAC system, a source with the Legal Aid believes, serves the BEOC offices. The system, at the time of the lawsuit filing, was still not repaired.
Legal Aid hired an outside engineer in October 2021 to visually assess the building’s HVAC system used for its offices. The engineers found several problems with the HVAC system that led to excessive humidity, including inadequate controls to remove moisture and dampers that remain fully closed or open (and if open, allowed excess humidity to enter). The engineers also found an open drain channel used for rainwater that was preventing the HVAC system from effectively removing moisture from the air.
On multiple occasions, as early as September 2020, Legal Aid forwarded the findings from independent health inspectors to the building’s landlord, but the underlying issue, the court documents state, was never fixed.
“The HVAC System does not operate properly. This wholesale failure to maintain the system has generated an unsafe environment, including fostering an environment prime for mold growth,” the Legal Aid complaint stated. “The underlying condition, namely the failed HVAC system, continues to plague the building and the premises.”
“The BEOC administration has not adequately addressed the many issues concerning the ventilation at BEOC,” said PSC Treasurer Felicia Wharton, who was previously chapter chair of the BEOC and has worked at the school for around two decades. Wharton recalled earlier instances of mold in 2016 and 2017, when the administration’s solution was cleaning it with bleach.
“Up to this day, we have not received any ventilation data or evidence that the HVAC meets the CDC’s recommendation,” she said. “I am very concerned for the faculty, staff, and students’ health and safety at the BEOC who continue to work and attend classes in the building.”
In the summer of 2021, CUNY’s own engineering consulting firm did not list 111 Livingston as a building suitable for in-person learning. CUNY hired Ramboll Americas Engineering Solutions to do ventilation assessments of CUNY campus buildings. The BEOC – which educates students in programs ranging from getting a GED and college preparation to obtaining professional certification in medical billing – is administered by City Tech.
In the June 30 City Tech Report, 111 Livingston is listed as a building that was assessed, but did not make the cut for a Tier 1 building suitable for in-person learning, by complying with certain CDC guidelines. There are no details in the Ramboll report on why 111 Livingston did not qualify. When the PSC in the Fall of 2021 pressed for the engineering reports results through freedom of information requests, it received nothing for buildings associated with City Tech.
In the month after the Legal Aid lawsuit was filed, PSC members at BEOC received no official communication from either the administration or the building’s management about the Legal Aid lawsuit or the “nuisance” conditions cited by a city health inspector.
In fact, Henry, who works as an enrollment manager at the school, found out about the lawsuit and the rampant mold in the Legal Aid offices in his building through a text from a friend after his friend shared the March 15 AMNewYork article “Legal Aid Society sues its own Brooklyn landlord for moldy office.” The article stated that Legal Aid has been dealing with a years-old mold infestation in the building, and that with no proper remedy, Legal Aid decided to move its more than 400 staff members from the building because of the unsafe conditions.
The BEOC has a much smaller staff, with around 75 full-time and part-time workers, according to one member’s estimate. Because of the pandemic, they have been working remotely for more than a year. For their own health, workers want to continue remote work.
“If the pandemic has shown us anything, it has shown us how important health is. I cannot conceive of a reason to put us at risk,” said one member who preferred not to be named. “I can’t really fathom why they would risk everyone’s health to bring in 25 students.” (Most classes at the BEOC are still remote.)
Cleaning and making the problem disappear is not the solution for the PSC Environmental Health and Safety Watchdogs. CUNY has a contractual duty to provide workspaces that are “free from recognized hazards” that could cause serious harm, according to Article 39 of the PSC-CUNY contract.
“We want them out of that building until the conditions are fixed and we have verification that the issues have been fixed,” said PSC Watchdog Coordinator Jean Grassman. “I think this [issue] is in a class by itself. We’ve seen some pretty bad stuff.”