BROWN FOR THE DISABLED
IRA L. HERMAN ON THE SANTIAGO-MONTEVERDE BANKRUPTCY RULING BY AIMÉE GROTH
ON DAN BROWN’S PRO BONO WORK TO MAKE NEW YORK MORE WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE BY AIMÉE GROTH
One-quarter of New York City residents,
around 2 million people, live in rent-regulated
apartments, which means many eyes were
on Mary Veronica Santiago-Monteverde’s
bankruptcy proceedings last year.
At issue was whether Santiago-Monteverde’s
rent-stabilized apartment, a two-bedroom in the
East Village where she’s lived since 1963, and
for which she pays $703 a month, could be sold
along with other items to help pay creditors.
Ira L. Herman, a partner with Thompson &
Knight, filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of
the New York City Bankruptcy Assistance Project
for Santiago-Monteverde, advocating for the
trustee to treat the apartment as a personal
right, not a property right. “I thought … it’s not
permitted under the law for a landlord to coerce
an occupant,” he says.
Ultimately, the courts agreed.
“It was the New York Court of Appeals that
On the day before Hurricane Sandy hit in October
2012, Kenneth Martinez sat at a bus stop in Far
Rockaway hoping to get to a shelter in advance
of the storm. Each bus that arrived, though,
was packed, without the room to accommodate
him and his motorized wheelchair. Fearing
the wheelchair would short from the rain, he
eventually returned to his apartment. The next
day he called 311 and 911 to get evacuation
assistance. It never came. Hours later, neighbors
rescued Martinez, who was floating and nearly up
to his ceiling in an apartment full of water.
Martinez was one of 35 witnesses who testified
against the Bloomberg administration in a
class action lawsuit over the city’s emergency-preparedness system.
“No one had ever brought anything like this
in New York,” says Dan Brown, a litigator with
Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, who
took on the case pro bono as co-counsel with
Disability Rights Advocates. As part of the 119-
page decision, the city committed to a complete
decided that rent stabilization is a form of
public assistance and therefore exempt from
bankruptcy,” Herman says. “And then once
that decision was made and the question was
answered, then the 2nd Circuit took it back and
said, ‘Trustee, you’re wrong; you can’t do it.’” Until
the ruling, the term “public assistance” had never
previously been associated with rent stabilization.
The decision, Herman says, freed 2 million
New Yorkers from worrying about whether they
will ever have to choose to file for bankruptcy or
lose their apartment.
“I never thought that I’d do matrimonial
because it’s too emotional,” says Herman from
his office in Midtown Manhattan, which is filled
with bankruptcy memorabilia, including a copy
of the first congressional bankruptcy bill, “A Bill
to Establish an Uniform System of Bankruptcy
Throughout the United States,” drafted in 1798
and passed in 1801. “But this has its own set of
overhaul of its emergency management systems,
which now includes a much-expanded role for the
Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled,
et al. v. Bloomberg is one of several cases on which
Brown has worked that is changing the landscape
for a subset of the New York population. “New
York is not a friendly place—especially for those
who are disabled,” Brown says.
The issue is personal for Brown, whose brother
became quadriplegic just before his 21st birthday.
Months after Brown began practicing law, in fact, he
filed a suit against the New York City Road Runners
on behalf of his brother and eight other plaintiffs,
alleging discrimination against wheelchair racers
in the New York City Marathon. “My brother had
two very bad experiences trying to compete in the
marathon,” says Brown. “The first year, he was told
to start so early that he finished before the race
even began.” The case resulted in the creation of an
official wheelchair division of the marathon.
In another major victory, Brown and Disability
problems. It’s emotional when you’re fighting
for someone’s economic survival.”
Herman has seen his share of heart-wrenching
cases, including “the single mother from Jamaica,
Queens,” and victims in the Lehman Bros. and
Bernie Madoff clawback cases. “There’s the guy who
was previously a dentist and is now a security guard
in his 80s,” Herman says of a Madoff victim. “What
can you do? You do your best for these people.”
Rights Advocates negotiated terms with the city
and the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which
was only 1.8 percent wheelchair accessible when
they brought the case in 2011, to become 50
percent accessible by 2020.
Even though the taxicab case was leveled
against the city, it was hailed by all parties as
a historic victory and much-needed change.
“We always convince our adversaries to join our
cause,” Brown says.