Legal Aid’s Lawsuit Against Its Landlord Is Over — But Staff Say the Mold Problem That Drove It Persists

The iconic public defense organization is due back in its Brooklyn office Monday. Attorneys, reporting health complications, say they’ve dreaded the return.

Maggie Duffy   ·   August 28, 2023
Legal Aid's landlord agreed to improve health and safety. Staff say there's still work to be done. | All photos submitted by Legal Aid staff members

The Legal Aid Society sued its landlord last year because its Brooklyn office was full of mold. Today, staffers are going back — but they say the mold is still there.

On August 14, the self-described “largest, most influential social justice law firm in New York City” began the process of moving back to its 111 Livingston Street office from a temporary space at 15 MetroTech. The internet server and computers were due back at the old office on Friday, August 25, Legal Aid staffers said, making it the only office accessible to Brooklyn staff. Attorneys who have returned in the last two weeks have reported sore throats, migraines, and coughing fits after working in the space.

“You’re breathing for a little while and then your throat feels grainy, and your eyes, it just feels like you’re breathing something that’s not supposed to be there,” one attorney said. He said it felt like breathing wildfire smoke. He was coughing after just two hours.

Complaints about the mold and air quality at 111 Livingston were at the center of a year-long legal battle between the Legal Aid Society — known for providing public defense, offering immigration services, and suing bad landlords — and the Leser Group, its landlord. The fight ended over the summer with an agreement that Legal Aid would move back in once the Leser Group made certain improvements, including new health and safety protocols. The landlord promised to revamp the building’s HVAC system, according to a staff attorney, replacing an outdated manual system that had stymied air circulation and allowed mold to fester. (In July 2020, after the dampers had been closed for six months, a Department of Health inspector called it “worst case of black mold [he’d] ever seen in a commercial building.”)

New York Focus interviewed a dozen current and former Legal Aid staffers, several of whom requested to remain anonymous to avoid professional reprisal. Multiple staffers said the mold is visible in the office — on surfaces, book covers, boxes, and computers.

Recent scenes from the 111 Livingston Street office.

The Legal Aid Society acknowledged that its landlord created a “massive problem” and that the organization is “doing [its] very best to fix it.” While the building isn’t “100% back to normal,” Legal Aid maintains that it’s safe for staff to be in the building. The Leser Group did not respond to New York Focus’s requests for comment.

Before Legal Aid relocated to the temporary space, workers reported adult-onset asthma, chronic sinus infections, laryngitis, bronchitis, and migraines. Some staffers reported issues with their pregnancies, from late term miscarriage to premature birth. While the health concerns have not been directly linked to workplace conditions, staffers say the issues coincided with the existence of mold while they were working in the building.

According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “there are no standards for ‘acceptable’ levels of mold in buildings, and the lack of a definitive correlation between exposure levels and health effects makes interpreting the data difficult, if not impossible.”

One attorney, who spent her first day back wiping down surfaces with Lysol, recounted breathing issues and headaches after only two hours back in the Livingston office. During a phone interview with New York Focus, she was interrupted by an exterminator. “Looks like we have a mice problem as well,” she said.

“Health concerns were the main reason that I left.”

—Leah Martin, former Legal Aid Society criminal defense attorney

Even though Legal Aid’s deal with Leser mandated a safe and healthy return, staff members say they are being moved back to the office before the improvements are done, and they have received no timeline for completion. One staff member told New York Focus that they are having an all-staff meeting with Legal Aid’s CEO on Monday to demand a safe place to work.

In a statement, Legal Aid said there are “corrective measures” that still need to be taken, but “remaining ‘punch list’ items do not render the space unsafe.”

The union at Legal Aid has enlisted its own environmental health expert to perform independent inspections and advise the union on whether to reoccupy the space. In order to perform a final walkthrough, the union expert is waiting for the landlord to complete the testing and balancing of the system and to examine daily humidity reports, the union staff attorney said.

Jane Fox, Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALA) union chapter chair, said the union has been worried about an outcome like this and continually raised concerns about the lack of an alternative plan. “Management believes that things will be completed and ready to go by the time their lease is up in these other spaces,” she told New York Focus. “But what is your plan B? Are you just gonna leave us hanging?”

While working at the 111 Livingston office before the relocation, two staff attorneys contracted pneumonia and were hospitalized. Three other attorneys were diagnosed with adult-onset asthma while working in the building, including one who also had a second trimester miscarriage. Though none of the health concerns can be directly linked to the mold, some staff still fear returning to work.

The kitchen at 111 Livingston Street.

“I’m not trying to have another baby, so at least I’ve been through the worst,” said the staff member who reported the miscarriage. “But isn’t that sad? I’m saying, ‘I’ll just get laryngitis or a respiratory infection, it’s not as bad.’

“Health concerns were the main reason that I left,” said Leah Martin, a former criminal defense attorney at Legal Aid. “And there’s no amount of money that they couldn’t pay me to go back to that building.”

“I’m not trying to have another baby, so at least I’ve been through the worst.”

—Legal Aid staffer who reported a miscarriage

The attrition rates at Legal Aid have been increasing steadily over the past few years, according to Fox, and many attorneys who have left the Brooklyn office have self-reported health concerns as a primary reason for departure.

Established staffers will be able to work remotely two days a week, according to a new telecommuting policy, said Edwina Smith, a paralegal at the office. But new hires will be expected to be in the office five days a week. And most attorneys don’t want to work from home, according to a criminal defense staff attorney who has 25 files — each weighing a few pounds — for each felony of which her clients are accused. They just want a safe workspace.

“I was lugging them back and forth, but I need to have space for those, a space with a door to have a private conversation,” she said. “The job can’t be done without space in downtown Brooklyn — we all tried it and it’s not possible.”

Maggie Duffy is a Brooklyn-based writer and recent Mother Jones editorial fellow. She previously worked as an intern at In These Times.
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