A Condo Board Fought a 9/11 Vet Over His Shoes. Now It Has a Bigger Problem: the DOJ

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Courtesy Charlie Burge

Courtesy Charlie Burge

An apparently intractable conflict between a Florida condo board and a disabled 9/11 responder over him leaving his shoes outside his front door has become so toxic that the federal government has stepped in to try and resolve it.

Charlie Burge worked for the New York City Department of Sanitation for 35 years, first hitting the pavement in 1981 and eventually overseeing nighttime operations in North Brooklyn. On September 11, 2001, Burge ran across the Brooklyn Bridge to help out at the World Trade Center when he saw the buildings burning. He spent more than 400 days clearing debris at ground zero, then sifting through it at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island—where the wreckage was being sent by the truckload—for victims’ belongings and human remains.

Burge was subsequently diagnosed with seven health conditions, including upper respiratory issues, gastrointestinal ailments, skin cancer, and PTSD, that federal officials have certified are related to cleanup work at the World Trade Center site. Sometimes he has difficulty breathing and swallowing, and now must always keep an EpiPen on hand for emergencies.

When Burge retired in 2015, he and his wife, Anna, moved to Florida. They planned to live out their golden years, peacefully, at the Links South at Harbour Village, a condominium complex in Ponce Inlet, south of Daytona Beach, where the couple had purchased an apartment seven years earlier. To make sure no irritants get trapped inside their home, the Burges don’t have curtains, upholstered furniture, any pets, or carpeting of any kind.

In order to avoid needlessly aggravating Charlie’s symptoms, the two began leaving their shoes in the hallway outside their apartment—on a doctor’s advice—to help keep out outdoor allergens like pollen, mold, dust, and grasses that could trigger respiratory distress. Their door is set back from the outdoor passageway by several feet, and the shoes were not in a place where they could block anyone’s path, they said.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The shoes at the center of the issue.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Charlie Burges</div>

The shoes at the center of the issue.

Courtesy Charlie Burges

Years went by without a complaint. Suddenly, in October 2017, the condo board issued the Burges a “rule violation notice,” informing them that if their shoes weren’t back inside within 10 days, the building would take legal action. What happened next demonstrated a clear pattern of Fair Housing Act violations, according to the Department of Justice, which on Oct. 8 filed a civil action against the Links South condo association for discrimination. Under the act, the DOJ says, the board should make reasonable accommodations—such as allowing someone to leave shoes outside their door—so that the Burges would have “an equal opportunity to use and enjoy” their home.

“I’m not looking for fame or recognition. I’m just looking to live my life,” Burge, now 67, told The Daily Beast.

In January 2018, the board targeted the Burges again for leaving their shoes in the hallway. This time, the condo association specifically referenced item No. 4 of the community rules and regulations, which states: “Personal items may not be left at your front door such as shoes, chairs, towels, fishing poles, boogie boards, skateboards, etc. A doormat and a wreath are the only items allowed at your front door.”

20 Years After 9/11, Victim Families May Finally Get a Trial

If the shoes weren’t gone in a week, the notice warned, building staff would remove and discard them after 48 hours. A week later, the Burges opened their front door and found their shoes missing. They called the police, who came and helped the two retrieve their shoes from the building’s management office. The following month, the Burges received another rules violation notice for leaving their shoes outside their unit. The next day, their shoes were removed and taken to the management office. Again, the couple called the police, who showed up to help them get their shoes back.

Next came a letter from a lawyer hired by the condo association, warning them to “cease and desist” from leaving their shoes outside the door. If they didn’t comply, the building would seek an injunction forcing them to do so. And that’s when the local authorities showed up to have a word with Charlie.

“The police chief came to my house and said I can’t be tying up his officers [to constantly come and retrieve his shoes],” said Burge. “When the police chief in a small town comes to your house and asks for a favor, you do what he asks. So I brought my shoes in, and my conditions worsened.”

So Burge hired a lawyer. In April 2018, his attorney, Elizabeth Devolder, sent a formal request for a “reasonable accommodation” to allow Burge and his wife to leave their shoes outside their unit because of his failing health. They provided documentation from Burge’s medical providers: A recommendation from his doctor not to track “outdoor allergens, chemicals, or pollutants” into the home because of his various health conditions, and a request from a physician’s assistant to let Burge leave his shoes outside so as not to increase his suffering. The Burges also included an academic study on shoe-borne pathogens, as well as a letter from the World Trade Center Health program outlining the specifics of Charlie’s various maladies.

Two days later, the condo association’s attorney requested further documentation, as well as an explanation as to why an accommodation was in fact necessary. “As you can imagine, when your respiratory system is inflamed, it’s hard to breathe,” Devolder told The Daily Beast. “When your gastrointestinal system is inflamed, you may not be able to eat, you may not be able to absorb nutrients, it just makes sense to me that you would need to prevent that inflammation—the gastrointestinal and respiratory systems are pretty essential.”

Meanwhile, the condo board chief regularly parked a double stroller for his family outside of his unit, with impunity, according to Devolder.“If they’re enforcing a rule that says ‘nothing outside the doors,’ then why is the board president allowed to do that and the 9/11 worker can’t leave his shoes outside?” she said.

The head of the condo board and Burge’s main antagonist, Al Olearchick, and the lawyer representing the condo board, Katherine Hurst Miller, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.

“They say they didn’t discriminate,” said Burge. “Well, the federal government says you did.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Charlie Burge at the WTC site.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Charlie Burge</div>

Charlie Burge at the WTC site.

Courtesy Charlie Burge

The two sides then engaged in a seemingly endless back-and-forth over Burge’s medical evidence, with the condo’s lawyer claiming that it “did not establish a causal relationship between Mr. Burge’s shoes and ‘an undefined allergy or disability,’” the government’s complaint states. The condo asked Burge for permission to inspect and photograph his unit and “examine all shoes and vegetation within the unit and balcony,” authenticated copies of his medical and prescription records for the past two years, copies of any test results of the unit for any allergens or molds within the past year, and “any authoritative materials, which substantiate the correlation between an allergy documented by Mr. Burge and the need to store shoes outside.”

Devolder followed up with a letter from Burge’s allergist, which said, “Although issues may or may not occur when shoes are inside, some potential allergens and pesticides could cause extreme or even life-threatening respiratory distress or gastrointestinal inflammation that are hard to recover from. All caution should be taken to avoid these high-risk outcomes. It would be beneficial to make an arrangement for shoes to be stored outside of the home.”

Again, the condo’s lawyer responded by claiming the allergist’s letter “did not establish a nexus between Mr. Burge’s allergies or other disabilities and his shoes.”

So Devolder provided yet another letter from Burge’s physician, which stated that Burge “is allergic to mold, mites, dust, pollen, trees, and grasses, all of which may exacerbate his conditions,” further explaining, “These upper respiratory conditions cause difficulty primarily with breathing and swallowing, but can also affect speaking, eating, and hearing.”

“I’ve been to three speech pathologists over the past three years because my voice changes in texture and tone,” said Burge. “I have trouble swallowing, sometimes it gives me a speech impediment. At the last [condo board] meeting, they made fun of me because I pronounced a word wrong.”

Bringing his shoes inside puts Burge “at unnecessary risk of inflammation, difficulty breathing or swallowing, a possible complete inability to breathe or swallow,” the letter said, which noted that leaving the shoes outside gives any pollutants or allergens a chance to dissipate—the Burges’ apartment opens onto an open-air walkway, not an indoor hallway—”without the risk of transfer to Mr. Burge’s living area.”

Finally, in February 2019, the condo’s legal team replied, claiming that “the doctor’s letter does not connect the dots by stating specifically the nexus of such allergies to the specific substance presumably on his shoes.” The lawyers asked if Burge had gotten a doctor or lab to test his shoes, how Burge’s doctor advised him how to deal with shoes inside his vehicle, and “if Mr. and Mrs. Burge had any peer-reviewed medical articles that substantiated the correlation between Mr. Burge’s allergies and leaving his shoes outside,” states the government’s complaint.

In April 2019, Devolder filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which was headed at the time by Trump appointee Ben Carson. HUD determined that the condo association had indeed discriminated against Burge, clearing the way for DOJ to eventually file its own civil complaint. A source close to the case who asked for anonymity so as not to create even more problems for Burge, told The Daily Beast that the condo board began to lash out in subtle but obvious ways.

Unfounded rumors about Burge and his wife began to circulate throughout the community, and the board made statements during public meetings about how much Burge’s legal maneuvers were costing the condo association, according to the source. Trying to meet them halfway, Burge began washing his shoes before going inside, using a spigot located in the garage. Soon, building management removed the spigot handle, preventing Burge from rinsing outside pollutants from his soles, according to Burge .

“When I walk to the beach, I have to walk through the golf course, and there’s a lot of chemicals on a golf course,” he said.

At the same time, the association wasn’t holding other residents to the same standard, according to a building source, who said, “There is one unit owner that repeatedly left bags of canine fecal matter—dog shit—outside of his unit, and he was never given a violation notice.”

In the fall of 2020, Burge began to experience bleeding in his gastrointestinal tract, and the muscles around his throat began to contract, making it even harder for him to swallow, according to Devolder. In light of his increased physical suffering, which was further enhanced by stress, Devolder said she encouraged the condo association’s leadership to “act decently toward Mr. Burge.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Charlie and Anna Burge.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Charlie Burge</div>

Last month, the condo board authorized Burge to “temporarily” leave his shoes outside, said Devolder, “until there is a final resolution.” Building officials continue to deny any wrongdoing, and told Devolder that they plan to mount a vigorous court fight.

“This case has not been brought forward by Mr. Burge,” said Devolder, “it has been brought forward by the United States Department of Justice, which finds the violation of the Fair Housing Act so egregious, that it’s in the interest of the United States to prosecute the condo association. Mr. Burge has no interest in suing an association that will ultimately be assessed for the cost of litigation, and he will ultimately share in that cost. He doesn’t want to do that. But he has run out of alternatives for a resolution over an accommodation that costs the association nothing.”

Burge, for his part, says he simply wants to be left alone and said he doesn’t know why the building decided to come after him.

“They keep escalating and threatening, more and more,” he said.

Burge’s apartment overlooks a golf course, and can see the ocean from his balcony. He always planned on retiring to Ponce Inlet, because, “There’s different air down here. And it’s beautiful.”

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