Compulsive hoarding, or “Collyer’s Syndrome,”1 is a pattern of behavior where an individual accumulates an excessive number of objects which have little or no value and develops an attachment to and is unwilling to get rid of them (“Collyer’s conditions”). Such compulsive hoarding may be associated with obsessive compulsive disorder or schizophrenia.2 Collyer’s conditions in an apartment can create serious health and safety concerns for the occupant and neighbors. The collection of what is essentially garbage overwhelms the living space, generates foul odors and promotes insect infestation. Collyer’s conditions may also expose co-ops and condominiums to liability for injuries to firefighters engaged in extinguishing a fire in an apartment if such conditions cause the injury and violate fire codes.3
This column examines case law governing a co-op board’s ability to terminate a tenancy because Collyer’s conditions constitute a breach of the proprietary lease or by evicting hoarding owners for creating a nuisance. This column also discusses other remedies for Collyer’s conditions, including those available to condominiums. Lastly, this column recommends strategies for boards and managers when Collyer’s conditions occur.
Breach of Proprietary Lease
Where Collyer’s conditions exist in an apartment, a co-op board may seek to terminate the owner’s proprietary lease. One basis for termination would be objectionable conduct.4 To do so, the proprietary lease must state that objectionable conduct is a basis for lease termination and the board must strictly follow the lease’s termination provisions for objectionable conduct.5 However, successfully concluding such terminations can take years.
In Meadow v. 205 East 77th Street Tenants,6 the court held that the board, having determined that health and fire hazards in the apartment constituted objectionable conduct, acted in good faith in terminating the lease. The owner argued that the objectionable conditions were minor, but the court found that credible testimony established that massive amounts of trash were in and odors emanated from the apartment, that these conditions had existed over an extended period of time, and that they were not de minimis. It took five years after the co-op served a notice of termination for the proceeding to be concluded.
A co-op may also terminate a tenancy because Collyer’s conditions violate other lease provisions. In Vermeer Owners v. Messer,7 a co-op sought possession of an apartment because the owner violated lease provisions prohibiting unreasonable odors from escaping from the apartment and interference with the rights of other owners. The court found that the owner’s apartment was cluttered, created a fire hazard, exuded foul odors of excrement, vomit and cat urine, and caused insect infestation, thus adversely impacting other apartments and occupants. The co-op served its notice of termination in May 2004; the court awarded it possession of the apartment in February 2010.
Proceedings involving rental tenants may provide guidance to co-op boards.8 The odors, hazards, and insect infestation typical of Collyer’s conditions are usually sufficient for courts to find a nuisance warranting eviction.
In Cabrini Terrace Joint Venture v. O’Brien,9 the First Department affirmed a possession award to the landlord based on tenant’s nuisance. The trial court’s inspection found roach and rodent infestation, clutter, offensive odors, stacked newspapers and wiring in disarray, which had existed unabated for a number of years. The owner commenced the eviction proceeding in 2006; the appellate court order was issued in March 2010.
Condominiums and unit owners have also succeeded in evicting tenants of unit owners for nuisance. In Zipper v. Haroldon Court Condominium,10 the First Department held that the unit owner/landlord and condominium were entitled to evict the owner’s tenant because Collyer’s conditions in the apartment constituted a nuisance. The First Department reversed the trial court’s holding that odors from the apartment were an “inescapable reality of urban life,” and held that that testimony clearly established the ongoing and recurring presence of odors, clutter, debris, and cockroach infestation—constituting a nuisance warranting eviction.
Other Judicial Remedies
Even when a nuisance or breach of the lease has been established, courts generally allow the hoarder an opportunity to cure Collyer’s conditions before ordering a lease termination or eviction. A court may grant an injunction to a board requiring the owner to remove the Collyer’s conditions within a specified period of time. Or a court may issue a judgment declaring the Collyer’s conditions to be a nuisance or breach of the proprietary lease and requiring the owner to remedy the conditions, but delay issuing a lease termination or eviction order. However, where an owner has been afforded an ample opportunity to cure Collyer’s conditions and has failed to do so, courts have ultimately ordered evictions.11
In Riverbay Corp. v. Ryan,12 the co-op claimed that the owners caused unsanitary and dangerous conditions in the apartment by accumulating excessive clutter and refuse. After numerous stipulations allowing owners time to cure, a court inspection revealed that the situation had not improved. Acknowledging that the proceeding had been pending for two years, the court granted the co-op a warrant of eviction.
A court may also appoint a guardian, suggest the retention of cleaning services or ask the co-op board itself to assist in removal of the Collyer’s conditions.13 However, if the conditions nonetheless persist, an eviction or lease termination will be ordered. In Stratton Cooperative v. Fener,14 the First Department held that where a co-op apartment owner was given ample time to cure, with assistance from numerous community organizations, but still failed to cure the nuisance, denial of a further stay of eviction was warranted. The proceeding took five years until an eviction order was granted.
Unfortunately, legal proceedings may take a long time. Therefore, boards should initially attempt to resolve Collyer’s conditions without judicial intervention. Responsible family members, friends, financial advisors or counsel to the apartment owner can play an important role in ameliorating the Collyer’s conditions. Adult Protective Services of the New York City Human Resources Administration can be contacted by telephoning the Central Intake Unit. The services provided include financial management, heavy duty cleaning and access to medical services. If all else fails, a guardian for the owner can be appointed by the court.15
Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) and similar New York State and City statutes prohibit discrimination against a disabled person, including refusal by a landlord to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services in order to afford a disabled person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.16 Because compulsive hoarding may be accompanied by mental disorders or physical disabilities, the FHA and similar statutes may arguably protect a hoarding tenant from eviction. In RCG-UA Glenwood v. Young,17 the court held that where a rental tenant suffering from schizo-affective disorder creating cluttered conditions in the apartment, the FHA required the landlord to accommodate the tenant and allow him to continue to reside in the apartment. The court noted that the tenant’s condition had improved with treatment and so long as tenant remained in treatment eviction would be inappropriate.
However, in A.R. v. New York City Housing Authority Adult Protective Services,18 although this case was dismissed for lack of standing, the court stated that even where a tenant suffers from mental illness, the Housing Authority is not required to keep him in public housing where the cluttered and unsanitary condition of his apartment pose a threat to the health, safety and welfare of other tenants. Here, the tenant’s condition had not improved over time and efforts to clean the apartment were hampered by tenant’s lack of cooperation.
Although our research has disclosed no reported cases in New York, compulsive hoarding conditions can exist in condominiums.19 Due to the absence of a landlord-tenant relationship, a condominium board cannot pursue the breach of lease or nuisance remedies available to co-ops and rental landlords which can result in eviction. Instead, condominium boards may seek equitable relief, such as an injunction, to compel a unit owner to remedy hoarding conditions, relying on the hoarding owner’s breach of bylaw provisions that are typically found in condominiums and generally require the owner to maintain the apartment in accordance with law, in good condition and so as to not interfere with the rights of other owners.
The front line for addressing Collyer’s conditions is to reach out to a responsible relative, friend or professional advisor of the apartment owner, as well as state and city agencies that can provide assistance. Case law demonstrates that eviction or lease termination proceedings based on Collyer’s conditions may be lengthy and expensive. Therefore, due to the potentially hazardous nature of Collyer’s conditions, it is crucial for a board to act immediately and remain diligent in pursuing a resolution.
Managers should maintain detailed documentation of hoarding conditions and record efforts made by the board and manager to resolve the problem before commencing litigation. Contacting the apartment owner and offering assistance in curing the conditions, either by referring the owner to a government agency or by contributing to the cleanup process, and reaching out to family and friends of the owner, does not guarantee that the owner will be cooperative or that the conditions will be cured.
Boards may also report health and safety hazards to the controlling municipal agencies. And boards may be empowered by the entity’s governing documents to impose fines on owners for violating a co-op lease, condominium bylaws or house rules. If the problem persists, a board should take legal action. Co-op boards can seek to terminate the tenancy for breach of the proprietary lease pursuant to the objectionable conduct provision, while condominium boards should seek equitable relief. Ignoring the problem is simply not a viable option.
Richard Siegler is of counsel to Stroock & Stroock & Lavan and an adjunct professor at New York Law School. Eva Talel is a partner at Stroock and an adjunct professor at Cardozo Law School. Michael Brancheau, a student at New York Law School, and Margaret Jones, a research librarian at Stroock, assisted in the preparation of this article. Stroock is counsel to the Real Estate Board of New York.
1. The syndrome is named after the Collyer brothers, who, in 1947, were found dead in their Harlem home surrounded by more than 100 tons of garbage, furniture and other debris. See Gray, “Streetscapes/128th Street and Fifth Ave., Former Site of the Harlem House Where the Collyer Brothers Kept All That Stuff; Wondering Whether a Park Should Keep Its Name” New York Times, June 23, 2002, at 7, sec. 11.
2. Valente, “The Hoarding Syndrome: Screening and Treatment,” 27 Home Healthcare Nurse 432, 434 (2009).
3. New York General Municipal Law §205(a) allows firefighters to recover for injuries suffered as a result of a party’s neglect or failure to comply with governmental regulations. Although there is little case law on the issue, it appears that §205(a) is applicable to co-ops. In Sollecito v. 360 E. 72nd Street Owners, a firefighter sued an apartment owner and co-op for injuries suffered while fighting a fire in the apartment. The court found a factual dispute concerning the cause of injury, but there was no dispute regarding the applicability of §205(a) to co-ops. 234 A.D. 2d 200 (1st Dept. 1996). And, in Menard v. Highbridge House, 31 Misc. 3d 1233 (Sup. Ct. Bronx County), aff’d by 83 A.D. 3d 532 (1st Dept. 2011), the court acknowledged that Collyer’s Conditions could violate the fire code and result in violations against the property owner.
4. See, e.g., 40 West 67th Street Corporation v. Pullman, 100 N.Y.2d 147 (2003).
5. See Joint Approach v. Mahoney, 17 Misc. 3d 1134 (Civ. Ct. Kings County), holding that where the board failed to follow the proprietary lease’s requirement for an objectionable conduct termination—requiring a majority vote of the board at a meeting duly called for that purpose—the co-op’s summary holdover proceeding to recover possession of the apartment would be dismissed because the owner’s lease had not been lawfully terminated.
6. 2010 WL 4209263 (Sup. Ct. New York County), 2011 WL 247011 (Sup. Ct. New York County), leave to reargue denied, index no. (400689/08) 4/17/2012 (Sup. Ct. New York County).
7. 26 Misc. 3d 1226 (A) (Civ. Ct. New York County 2010).
8. See Lebovits, “Nuisance Holdovers in New York” 33 N.Y. Real Prop. L.J. 68 (2005) available at http://works.bepress.com/gerald_lebovits/60 (discussing nuisance holdovers in New York including cases pertaining to objectionable conduct in co-ops and “Collyer’s conditions”). In 12 Broadway Realty v. Levites, the First Department held that “refusal to allow a landlord access to [the] apartment to correct a condition that threatens the health and safety of others in the building can constitute a nuisance” 44 A.D. 3d 372 (1st Dept. 2007).
9. 71 A.D.3d 486 (1st Dept. 2010), reversing, 18 Misc. 3d 1145 (Civ. Ct. New York County).
10. 39 A.D.3d 325 (1st Dept. 2007).
11. In Zipper, 39 A.D.3d 325, the court considered the years of prior litigation and tremendous efforts made by the court to avoid eviction. Nonetheless, the court found that the problem had not been solved, and could not be solved with a directive and found that eviction was the only proper remedy left. See Kast Realty v. Houston, 2003 N.Y. Slip Op 50892(U) (Sup. Ct. App. Term) (Upon inspection, the court determined that a nuisance condition was obvious and tenant was not entitled to further opportunity to cure, having had ample opportunity to do so). Accord: Gazvioda v. Sherman, 2008 N.Y. Slip Op 50312(U) (App. Term 1st Dept.); Cabrini Terrace Joint Ventures v. O’Brian, 71 A.D.3d 486 (1st Dept.. 2010); Whitehall Realty v. Friedman, 5 Misc. 3d 126 (App. Term 1st Dept.).
12. 2011 N.Y. Slip Op30500(U) (Civ. Ct. New York County).
13. See In re Nolan, 24 Misc. 3d 1233 (Sup. Ct. New York County) (granting stay of eviction proceedings, appointing a guardian ad litem for the tenant, who suffered from numerous disabilities and depression, and recognizing that it was “incumbent upon this court to safeguard the due process rights of those individuals that may suffer from mental or psychological disabilities”).
14. 211 A.D.2d 559 (N.Y. 1st Dept. 1995).
15. See, e.g., Human Resources Administration, New York City http://www.nyc.gov/html/hra/html/directory/adult.shtml, (212) 690-1853. Mental Hygiene Law, Article 81 (McKinney 2001).
16. Fair Housing Act 42 U.S.C. 3604(f)(3)(B). See also, N.Y. Exec. Law §296(d)(2), N.Y.C. Admin. Code 8-107(15).
17. 9 Misc. 3d 25 (Sup. Ct. App. Term).
18. 29 Misc. 3d 1206 (Sup. Ct. New York County).
19. For a discussion of hoarding cases in condominiums outside of New York see Bullington, “Buried in a Condominium Unit: Clutter Gone Wild” Real Estate Law Blog, Nov. 10, 2011 available at http://www.lexisnexis.com/community/realestatelaw/blogs/realestatelawblog/archive/2011/11/10/buried-in-a-condominium-unit-clutter-gone-wild.aspx.