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      Taking on NYCHA: Tackling A Culture of Negligence and Corruption

      Taking on NYCHA: Tackling A Culture of Negligence and Corruption

      Sophia Rostom was visiting a friend in Brooklyn’s Farragut Houses on March 28, 2023. With the front door lock broken, an intruder gained access to the building, resulting in his stabbing her 14 times in the head, heart, lungs, arms, leg and buttocks. She barely survived.

      Sophia lost nearly half her blood, underwent extensive surgery, and spent weeks in the intensive care unit. She decided that the responsibility for the attack could not go unclaimed, hiring Morgan & Morgan to sue the New York City Housing Authority. 

      Over half a million New Yorkers receive affordable housing through the New York City Housing Authority, or “NYCHA”, making it the largest public housing authority in the country and the city’s biggest landlord. Established in 1934, NYCHA was created as a response to the economic turbulence of the Great Depression and the city’s housing crisis. Then, it was a beacon of modern ideals. Today, NYCHA housing is often ill-maintained, in disrepair, and sits in the center of constant political tug of war. 

      How We Got Here 

      Farragut Houses are located in Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood and are home to thousands of residents. Completed in 1952 and now over 70 years old, the buildings in the complex are falling apart. As of January 2024, there are over 4,000 open work orders on resident maintenance requests. They largely go unanswered.

      It isn’t just Farragut Houses. Across all of NYCHA housing, there are over half a million open requests, but NYCHA claims “a manageable workload of 90,000 work orders.” In a system that is crumbling inside and out, unsecured entrances are endemic, and residents suffer the consequences.

      A Pattern of Negligence 

      The neglect hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2018 and 2022, the Comptroller’s Office conducted audits of the entrances to NYCHA buildings, finding a large-scale issue with building security. In the 2022 report, they found that not only had their warnings from 2018 gone unheeded, but the problem had worsened. The percentage of residential building doors that had open and/or broken door locks increased from 23.5% in 2018 to 57.9% in 2022, a disturbing turn. 

      Elected by the people, the New York City Comptroller acts as the city’s chief financial officer and chief auditor, a much-needed actor of checks and balances over appointed officials such as NYCHA’s chairperson. These reports did not only identify the issue, they prescribed remedial steps for NYCHA to take. They failed to do so. 

      A Culture of Corruption  

      While NYCHA officials repeatedly ignored the comptroller’s audit, an insidious element was also at play: bribery and corruption. On February 6, 2024, less than a year after Sophia suffered the attack, 70 former and current NYCHA officials were charged with bribery and extortion. It was the largest amount of federal bribery charges on a single day in DOJ history.  

      The arrests are confirmatory to something the 2018 and 2022 reports clearly identified: an attitude of resignation at best, and corruption at worst, amongst NYCHA employees. This indifference to residents of NYCHA properties, the New Yorkers who support their local communities as teachers, nurses, and more, must be put to an end. 

      Building The Case 

      In filing this negligent security claim, the team at Morgan & Morgan must establish that one, NYCHA owed Sophia a duty of care, two, NYCHA breached that duty, and three, NYCHA’s breach caused an articulable injury to Sophia. 

      Well-established precedent set by New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has consistently held that NYCHA has a duty to take minimal precautions to protect the people occupying their buildings, including a third party's foreseeable criminal conduct. This includes the most rudimentary security, for example, locks for the entrances of an apartment building. What’s left to prove is that NYCHA breached their duty, and it was a substantial cause of the attack on Sophia. 

      Gathering Evidence and Establishing Notice

      In a catastrophic incident of this nature, law enforcement compiles evidence early on that can be instrumental in building the case. Since this was an attempted homicide, the NYPD conducted an investigation of their own, canvassing the area for witnesses and gathering video surveillance, physical, and a plethora of other documentary and record evidence that could prove invaluable. 

      To leverage this evidence, it was essential to quickly file FOIA requests and a motion to access documents such as: 

      • The NYPD’s documents
      • Court documents
      • Documents related to the comptroller’s audits from 2018 and 2022
      • Documents from NYCHA, the Department of Buildings, and any agency that inspects, reviews, audits, maintains, or otherwise controls the locking mechanisms at Farragut Houses 

      In addition, a team of in-house investigators was sent to the site to compile evidence. Even months after the incident, they still found that the lock in question had not yet been fixed. 

      Witnesses will be called up to testify the state of security at Farragut Houses, including the length of time the lock has remained broken. 

      This evidence will be used to establish notice. NYCHA was well informed of these inherently dangerous conditions and the risk to resident and guest safety. Since at least the 2018 report, a full five years before this incident, NYCHA knew (or should have known) that an attack like this was likely to occur, and did nothing. 

      A Different Kind of Defendant 

      As a public authority, NYCHA is entitled to a slew of legal advantages. As preconditions to filing suit, a claim must be filed within 90 days of the incident, and the client must be produced for a hearing on the claim. By the time the case enters litigation, NYCHA is much further ahead than a typical corporate defendant. 

      Once the action is filed, NYCHA is given another opportunity to interview the client through a deposition, making these cases more difficult to litigate. With all the internal red tape, these cases can also take much longer to resolve, making it that much more important to aggressively move them forward. 

      In the future, additional defendants may be discovered. NYCHA may point a finger at a third-party contractor or advisor involved in managing building security. Pushing discovery and following up on demands are both incredibly important to ensuring that no stone is left unturned. 

      Getting Justice 

      The primary focus of this case is to get justice for Sophia and what she's endured. But for anyone who has been similarly victimized by NYCHA failures, we are prepared to advocate on their behalf and continue to hold the institution accountable. Continuing the tide of justice for Sophia and others who may be in need are at the core of the firm’s mission and why we all show up every day: for the people, not the powerful. 

      Morgan & Morgan attorney Moses Ahn contributed to this article.