The group of lawyers helping the residents of South Ozone Park whose houses were flooded with raw sewage last November are increasing pressure on city Comptroller Scott Stringer to fully reimburse the cost of the incident’s damages.
The letter sent by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the organization that has been working with the residents pro bono, includes a concrete list of demands that would result in an equitable reimbursement for the disaster.
“In particular, we are urging you to review the claim settlement process regarding this crisis, which, in our view, is at odds with both the legal obligations governing the Office of the Comptroller, as well as notions of fundamental fairness,” read the NYLPI letter.
Over Thanksgiving in 2019, raw sewage flooded over 100 houses in South Ozone Park, destroying basements and belongings and displacing residents to hotels. In the aftermath, the Comptroller’s Office set up a site in the neighborhood to process residents’ claims.
When many of the residents began receiving offers from the Comptroller’s Office in the year after the incident, they said its initial offers did not fully cover their expenses. Others still have not received one.
According to a letter the comptroller sent Nov. 24, his office has offered settlements on 85 percent of filed claims, and has settled 60 percent of them.
But in its letter NYLPI pointed out that an investigation found the city to be at fault when the cause of the backup was deemed to be a collapsed pipe in the sewer main. The letter argues that given this outcome the city should be responsible for 100 percent of the damages incurred.
One of the affected homeowners, Aracelia Cook, of the 129th Street Civic Association, put together a spreadsheet documenting the initial claims versus offers that over 100 of the residents received. She provided the Chronicle with figures showing that at least 11 residents received thousands of dollars less than they claim they paid in damages — nine of those residents received over $10,000 less than their claim.
NYLPI highlighted a case where a family submitted a claim for approximately $48,000, consisting of $38,000 to repair damages to their home and $10,000 in claims for lost personal items. The comptroller’s initial settlement offer was $11,000, according to the letter, with no explanation as to how that amount was reached.
The lawyers said offers have generally been 30 to 50 percent of the amount claimed by residents.
“From day one, our office has been working to help residents return to their homes and receive what they are owed. We strive to be as clear and transparent as possible, and we are committed to doing everything in our power to help impacted New Yorkers get back on their feet,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, press secretary for the comptroller.
The Comptroller’s Office claims that it made reasonable offers for damages that could be substantiated, and that it continues to work with claimants to make adjustments on the offer amounts should claimants come forward with additional proof of damages.
The lawyers pointed out that a major problem with the settlement offers is that they do not include any explanation for why the comptroller discounted each claim.
Residents told the Chronicle at the end of November that the office did not make it clear they could appeal for more money. Many were confused as to why the Comptroller’s Office gave them a limited window to accept their offers, and felt pressured to accept low offers due to the constraint.
Offer letters contained “ominous ‘take it or leave it’ language, putting residents in fear that if they do not accept the low offers within 30 days, they will receive nothing,” read the NYLPI letter.
The NYLPI lawyers listed six demands to ameliorate the plight of the South Ozone Park residents, including extending the statute of limitations for claims, accepting late-filed and resubmitted claims, re-evaluating closed claims, settling claims promptly, improving transparency and allowing amendments when additional damages are found.
The Comptroller’s Office told the Chronicle Municipal Law does not allow the agency to extend the 90-day time limitation on filing a notice of claim, but added that it will continue to work with homeowners on an ongoing basis to answer questions and address any concerns.