Case Studies: How the Courts Analyze Reasonable Accommodation Claims
In this lesson, the Coach highlights court cases, all decided in the past few months, involving reasonable accommodation requests.
Fair housing law bans discrimination based on disability, which, among other things, requires communities to make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, or services when necessary to allow an individual with a disability to use and enjoy his or her home. More than half of the thousands of the fair housing complaints filed each year are for disability discrimination, many involving disputes over reasonable accommodation requests.
Many of these disputes wind up in court, where the courts ultimately decide whether a community violated fair housing law by denying a resident’s reasonable accommodation request. In many cases, the issue is whether the resident has a disability—a key requirement to qualify for a reasonable accommodation under fair housing law. And often, it’s about the nature of the requested accommodation—communities are not required to grant requests for accommodations unless they are both reasonable and necessary.
In this lesson, we’ll go over the law on reasonable accommodations and present four case studies—recent fair housing cases involving reasonable accommodation requests. In each case, you’ll discover what happened and how the dispute wound up in court. Then you’ll learn what the court actually decided, and why, so you’ll see just how the rules were applied in the real world. With that insight, you’ll be better equipped to comply with fair housing requirements when handling reasonable accommodation requests at your community.
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) bans housing discrimination based on disability, so it’s unlawful to exclude or to otherwise discriminate against applicants and residents because of their disability—or the disability of anyone associated with them. But the law goes further by making it unlawful to refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. By definition, this requires communities to make exceptions to their general policies and procedures to accommodate individuals with disabilities under certain circumstances.
Although an applicant or resident isn’t entitled to receive a reasonable accommodation unless he requests one, the law doesn’t require that a request be made in a particular manner or at a particular time. An applicant or resident makes a reasonable accommodation request whenever he makes clear to the housing provider that he is requesting an exception, change, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service because of his disability, according to federal guidelines.
When disputes end up in court, owners and managers may be liable for a fair housing violation for refusal to grant reasonable accommodation requests if the resident can prove:
1. The request was made by or on behalf of an individual with a disability. Whether it’s the resident himself or a family member, an individual must qualify under the FHA’s definition of “disability” to be entitled to a reasonable accommodation. Under the FHA, a disability generally means a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Examples include orthopedic, visual, speech, and hearing impairments; heart and lung conditions; and mental illness.
Not everyone who has an impairment will qualify for the FHA’s disability protections. The definition of disability requires that the impairment substantially limit one or more major life activities, which means that it has a significant impact on activities that are central to daily life, such as seeing, hearing, walking, or caring for oneself.
2. The community knew—or was aware—of the disability. Some disabilities, like visual or hearing impairments, are obvious or apparent, while other disabilities show little outward sign of impairment. But it doesn’t matter as far as the law is concerned: Communities must consider a reasonable accommodation request by an individual with a disability, whether it’s physical or mental, obvious or not.
If the resident doesn’t have an obvious or apparent disability, you don’t have to take his word for it. If he asks for a reasonable accommodation, you may request disability-related documentation to verify that he qualifies under the FHA’s definition of disability, but you can’t insist on a doctor’s note to verify that he has a qualifying disability, according to federal guidelines.
Depending on the circumstances, the guidelines say that verification can come from the individual himself, including proof that he receives Social Security disability benefits or “a credible statement by the individual.” It could also come from a doctor or other medical professional, a peer support group, a non-medical service agency, or “a reliable third party who is in a position to know about the individual’s disability.” In most cases, HUD says that an individual’s medical records or detailed information about the nature of a person’s disability is not necessary for this inquiry.
3. The request is necessary. The reasonable accommodation must be necessary—one that allows an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to enjoy the housing. To determine whether a requested accommodation is necessary, there must be an identifiable connection between the requested accommodation and the individual’s disability. Sometimes, it’s easy to see the connection—for example, when a resident with a severe mobility impairment asks for an assigned accessible parking space as an exception to a community’s general parking policy. But disputes often arise over the connection between a resident’s disability and the need for the requested accommodation.
4. The request is reasonable. Communities may deny a request for a disability-related accommodation when providing the accommodation would be unreasonable—that is, it would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the community or fundamentally change its operations. But that doesn’t mean that you can reject an accommodation request simply because it involves some costs or extra paperwork. Instead, you’ll have to review—on a case-by-case basis—various factors, including the cost of the accommodation, the financial resources of the community, the benefits that the accommodation would provide, and the availability of alternatives would effectively meet the resident’s disability-related needs, according to federal guidelines.
Even when a request is unreasonable, federal guidelines say that communities should engage in an “interactive process” by talking with the resident about alternative accommodations that would effectively meet his disability-related needs without imposing an undue burden on the community.
5. The community denied the request. That’s easy to prove in some cases—for example, the community doesn’t allow any exceptions to its policies or formally denies a particular resident’s request. In some cases, however, there are disputes over whether a community refused the request—often in cases where the community requests documentation about the resident’s disability or need for the requested accommodation.
Even when you’re allowed to request documentation to assess a reasonable accommodation request, you can’t use the process to stonewall or discourage the resident from pursuing the request. An unreasonable delay in responding to a reasonable accommodation request is the same as a denial—and you could face additional trouble if the court views your actions as interfering with the resident’s exercise of his fair housing rights. That’s considered retaliation, a separate violation of fair housing law.
6. The request doesn't involve a direct threat. In some cases, there’s one more factor to consider: whether the requested accommodation involves a direct threat to the community. The FHA carves out an exception to exclude anyone with a disability whose tenancy would constitute a “direct threat” to the health or safety of others—or result in substantial physical damage to the property of others—unless the threat can be eliminated or significantly reduced by reasonable accommodation.
That means that you don’t have to grant reasonable accommodation requests if the resident—or in the case of assistance animals, the requested accommodation—poses a direct threat to your property or other residents. Nevertheless, federal guidelines warn against a blanket policy that excludes individuals (or their assistance animals) based upon fear, speculation, or stereotypes. In each case, federal guidelines require you to conduct an individualized assessment of whether that particular resident (or assistance animal) poses a direct threat based on reliable objective evidence of current conduct or a recent history of overt acts. According to federal guidelines, the assessment must consider:
- The nature, duration, and severity of the risk of injury;
- The probability that injury will actually occur; and
- Whether there are any reasonable accommodations that will eliminate the direct threat.
4 CASE STUDIES INVOLVING
REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION CLAIMS
Case Study #1: A Man, His Dog, and the Community’s No-Pet Policy
Issue: Did Resident Have a Disability?
That’s the central issue in this case, filed by a resident of a Puerto Rico condominium community, who asked for an exception to its no pet-policy as a reasonable accommodation so he could keep his dog as an assistance animal.
The resident lived there for many years, but problems arose when the homeowners association (HOA) found out that he had a dog and threatened to fine him unless he removed it. The resident responded with a letter, explaining that he had anxiety and depression and that the dog was an emotional support animal; attached was a letter from his treating psychiatrist. Because the HOA didn’t relax its no-pet policy, he said he was forced to sell his unit and move out.
The resident filed a complaint with HUD, which charged the HOA with disability discrimination by denying his reasonable accommodation request. At an administrative hearing, the resident, his treating psychiatrist, and his primary care doctor all testified that the resident had a disability—anxiety and depression—and that his symptoms were improved by the presence of an emotional support animal. However, the judge denied the claim, ruling that the resident failed to prove that he had a mental disability that would allow him to keep an emotional support animal as a reasonable accommodation.
On appeal, the HUD Secretary reversed, ruling that the resident had a disability and the HOA was liable for disability discrimination. The case went back to the administrative judge, who ordered the HOA to pay $3,000 to the resident for emotional distress and a $2,000 penalty. On appeal, the HUD Secretary once again reversed, increasing damages for emotional distress to $20,000 and the penalty to the maximum, $16,000.
The HOA appealed. What did the court decide?
Decision: In favor of the resident.
In early May 2016, the federal appeals court upheld the HUD Secretary’s decision that the HOA unlawfully refused to allow the resident to keep an emotional support animal in his unit as a reasonable accommodation for his disability.
The resident’s testimony, along with that of his two doctors, showed that the resident, who had anxiety and depression, was a person with a disability. The administrative judge was wrong to discount the resident’s testimony, apparently concluding that an individual cannot supply key testimony verifying his own disability status. After reviewing the testimony, the Secretary concluded that the resident had what amounted to a lifelong history of depression, in effect rejecting the judge’s ruling that the resident didn’t have a disability.
The resident also proved that the community knew of his disability, that his emotional support dog was reasonable and necessary to afford him an equal opportunity to use and enjoy his dwelling, and that the HOA nonetheless refused to provide a reasonable accommodation. The evidence showed that he told the HOA about his disability and his need for an exception to its no-pet policy so he could keep his emotional support animal as a reasonable accommodation, but the HOA told him that he couldn’t keep the dog in his unit.
- Castillo Condominium Association v. HUD Secretary, May 2016
Case Study #2: Did ‘Mr. Munchkin’ Have to Go?
Issue: Did the Resident Have a Disability?
Issue: Was the Requested Accommodation Reasonable and Necessary?
Issue: Did the Community Deny the Request?
All of these issues were disputed in this case against a California community over a resident’s request for an exception to its no-pet policy so she could keep her cat, “Mr. Munchkin,” as an emotional support animal.
The resident had various health problems, including heart and lung problems and knee pain, for which she used a cane and an electric wheelchair and installed a ramp to get through her front door. She also received federal SSI disability benefits for mental impairments, including depression, anxiety disorder, psychotic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. She disclosed that she received the disability benefits on her rental application.
Despite the community’s no-pet policy, the resident had a cat in her unit. She said the cat provided emotional support by making her feel calmer and less anxious, which helped lessen the effects of some of her physical problems.
Three months after she moved in, the community’s management company told her to remove the cat or face eviction for violating the community’s no-pet policy. She responded with a note asking to keep the cat, explaining that she suffered from physical and mental impairments and that she needed the cat for emotional support. She also said that the cat caused no damage; it was neutered, vaccinated, and house-broken; and that she was willing to pay a pet deposit. Her daughter also emailed the management company asking for permission for her mother to keep the cat, but an employee emailed back that the mother could not keep her cat.
The mother sought help from the county department on aging, which sent a letter asking the management company to waive the pet policy as a reasonable accommodation and to stop threatening her with eviction unless she got rid of the cat.
In response to this request, the management company asked the resident for documentation from an attending physician or psychiatrist attesting to her disability-related need for an animal; she was instructed to submit it within a week to prevent eviction for violating the lease, but she apparently missed the deadline. A few days later, she received a notice to quit, which ordered removal of the cat; soon after, she received a notice terminating her tenancy for breach of the lease based on the pet policy.
The resident contacted a local fair housing organization, which asked the community to rescind the termination notice and allow her to stay with her cat as a reasonable accommodation. Accompanying the letter were two statements from a clinic, stating that she was under the care of a clinic doctor, listing her medical diagnoses, and stating that a companion animal would benefit her health.
The management company denied the request, so the fair housing organization sent a second letter from the clinic, describing the resident’s mental and physical impairments and stating that an emotional support animal “would ease her anxiety and depression” and could “benefit her by improving her medical symptoms.” The management company rejected the second letter and asked for further detailed information about the resident’s diagnoses.
A few weeks later, the resident moved out to avoid the further possibility of eviction. She said she was worried that she could lose her Section 8 housing voucher if she were evicted.
The resident sued the community’s owners and managers for disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of fair housing law.
Both sides asked the court for judgment without a trial. What did the court decide?
Decision: In favor of the resident.
In April 2016, the court granted judgment to the resident, ruling that the community violated fair housing law by denying her request to keep the cat as a reasonable accommodation for her disability and retaliating against her for exercising her rights under fair housing law.
There was no question that the resident was disabled because of her various mental and physical impairments that substantially limited her major life activities. It was also clear that the community knew or should have known that she was disabled. The management company argued that it was reasonably seeking additional documentation to determine the extent of her disability, but the information about her disability benefits on her rental application, along with numerous documents from the resident and the clinic, were enough to put the community on notice of her disabilities.
The resident’s requested accommodation was necessary for her to fully use and enjoy the unit. Under HUD guidelines, a housing provider must make an exception to its no-pet policy as a reasonable accommodation when the disabled person has a disability-related need for an assistance animal and the animal provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability. The statements from the resident and her doctor showed that the cat provided emotional support, which eased the symptoms of her mental and physical conditions.
The community didn’t seriously dispute the reasonableness of providing an exception for her cat. In fact, the manager admitted that he had allowed emotional support animals in the past for other residents, and would have done the same for the resident if she simply provided the documentation he requested. But the court said she already provided the necessary documentation, so his statement was proof that making an exception to the no-pet policy wouldn’t impose any fundamental alteration of the community’s services or pose undue financial or administrative burdens.
The court rejected the community’s claims that it was worried about fleas and the safety of other residents. Any determination of a threat posed by an emotional support animal must be based on an assessment of the particular animal—and the community failed to contradict the resident’s claims that the cat was neutered, vaccinated, and housebroken—or provide any evidence specifically related to the threat posed by this cat.
Finally, the undisputed facts showed that the community refused to provide her with a reasonable accommodation by responding to her repeated requests with denial and delay. The court rejected the community’s claims that it merely asked for documentation and never denied her accommodation request—at the same time that it was asking for more information, it was also taking steps to evict her. Furthermore, she had already provided supporting documentation from her doctor that the animal provided emotional support that alleviated identifiable symptoms, so the community had no basis to continue seeking additional information and any further delay amounted to refusal of her accommodation request.
- Castellano v. Access Premier Realty, Inc., April 2016
Case Note: The court also found the community liable for retaliation by interfering with the resident’s exercise of her fair housing rights—a separate violation of fair housing law. The court said that the community meddled with her right to obtain a reasonable accommodation—and responded to her request by threatening to evict her. Its actions would give a person in her position pause in seeking to enforce her right to a reasonable accommodation under fair housing law.
Case Study #3: Did Resident’s Accommodation Request Go Over the Line?
Issue: Is Requested Accommodation Reasonable and Necessary?
In this case, filed by the resident of an Indiana community, the dispute wasn’t whether the resident was disabled, but whether he went too far by demanding parking accommodations that were not reasonable or necessary.
The resident moved into the community in 2000 to care for his ailing mother, who was already living there. The resident, who had a mobility impairment, didn’t have a car, but his mother had one.
The community reserved a parking space for the resident directly in front of the door to his unit, which was marked by a sign with a handicap placard. In addition, there were two accessible parking spaces at the end of their building, both equipped with access aisles that were marked with blue lines painted on the pavement. Parking was limited at the facility, so other residents, some of whom had disabilities, had to compete for the remaining parking spots.
The resident said that he repeatedly asked the community to paint blue-striped access aisles next to his reserved space to provide him with greater access to vehicles. Though he couldn’t say when he made the requests, he said the community repeatedly denied the requests, telling him that the request would inconvenience other residents since the facility didn’t have enough parking spaces as it was.
The mother passed away in 2008, but the community allowed him to keep the car in the reserved space. The resident, who didn’t have a driver’s license since 2006, didn’t use it, and the vehicle was never moved until it was donated in 2012. During this time, he said people would pick him up to take him places.
After donating the vehicle, the resident complained that that other residents kept parking in his reserved spot. In response, the community started placing an orange cone in the parking lot, when requested, to keep cars from parking in front of his unit and allow access for medical transportation or when other people would pick him up to take him to the hospital.
Later that year, the resident was using a wheelchair while healing from knee surgery some months earlier. One day, his sister went to pick up him up, but she parked in front of his apartment and he couldn’t maneuver the wheelchair between the vehicles. He got up to walk to the passenger door, but he fell and suffered injuries. He lived there for two more years until his lease was terminated.
The resident sued the community for violating fair housing law by denying his reasonable accommodation requests to add blue-painted access aisles to his reserved parking space.
The community asked the court for judgment without a trial. What did the court decide?
Decision: In favor of the community.
In March 2016, the court dismissed the case, ruling that the resident’s request that the community provide him with blue stripes around his parking spot, in addition to reserving him a space directly in front of his unit and providing the orange cone accommodation to prevent others from parking there, was neither reasonable nor necessary under the circumstances.
The law requires communities to make reasonable accommodations to their rules, policies, practices, and services, but this doesn’t mean that communities must do everything humanly possible to accommodate a disabled person; the cost to the community and benefit to the resident must also be considered.
The resident’s request was unreasonable. It was undisputed that the community already provided the resident with a reserved parking space directly in front of his building, despite the fact that he had neither a vehicle since 2012 nor a driver’s license since 2006. In addition, there were two accessible parking spots, each with blue striped access aisles, at the end of the building. Parking was already limited at the community, so other tenants, some with disabilities, had to compete for all available parking spots. Adding blue-striped access aisles around the resident’s reserved apace and further limiting parking to other residents would undoubtedly be burdensome to the community.
There was nothing in fair housing law that creates an absolute right to blue lines to be painted next to a disabled resident’s reserved space, so the law didn’t require the community to give him exactly what he wanted. The purpose of his request for the blue-painted lines was to have sufficient space to get into vehicles, but the community had addressed that concern by reserving his parking space and placing an orange cone to ensure that he had enough space to access transportation vehicles when needed. Since reconfiguring its already limited parking area to provide him with an additional area painted with blue stripes would be particularly burdensome to the community, and because it would provide him with minimal benefit, the burden on the community to do so outweighed the benefit to the resident, so it was unreasonable.
Furthermore, his requested accommodation was not necessary. The resident had a mobility impairment, and the community provided him with a reserved space in front of his unit and placed an orange cone when requested to ensure he had available parking when needed for medical transport or other transportation need.
There were other residents with disabilities at the community who owned cars yet, unlike the resident, had to compete with other residents, both with and without disabilities, for the limited parking spots available. To force the community to provide this resident with blue-striped access aisles next to his spot would be an accommodation, relative to other residents, that went beyond affording him equal opportunity to use and enjoy his dwelling. It wouldn’t ameliorate the effects of his disability, so it wasn’t necessary.
- Money v. Kendallville Place Apartments, Phase II, LLC, March 2016.
Case Study #4: Was It a Threat—or a Terrible Misunderstanding?
Issue: Did resident request an accommodation?
Issue: Did resident’s son pose a direct threat to the community?
This case was about whether a Florida community unlawfully refused to renew a resident’s lease because of threats made by her son—and whether she requested a reasonable accommodation to let him stay.
The resident lived there for several years with her son, who was born with Down Syndrome. Though he turned 21 in 2012, his mother said his intellectual disability caused him to act like a 7-year-old child. In mid-August, she said the community sent her a renewal notice offering the opportunity for flexible renewal options.
A few weeks later, the mother said that she discovered that her son was being used as a maintenance person by the staff and had been cleaning the bathroom at the community’s clubhouse. She said her son appeared upset, and she believed that the manager had chastised him for stealing toilet paper.
The mother said she called the manager, who claimed that a few days earlier, the son had drawn on a map of the community and said he was going to trap her and another employee and then trap residents in their units and light the property on fire. The mother explained that the son was describing the plot of a TV cartoon series he watched and didn’t mean any harm. But the manager allegedly said her staff didn’t feel safe and the legal department was now involved.
The next morning, the mother said that the manager brought a deputy sheriff to speak to the son about the perceived threats. The mother said she tried to explain that the son wasn’t a threat and was merely describing a cartoon, but that he had a speech impediment that made it difficult for him to explain himself. Nevertheless, the deputy allegedly warned the son that he would be arrested if he went near the office or clubhouse.
After they left, the mother said that she called the manager, saying that her son was very sorry and that she was trying to find a place where he could stay for the day while she was at work to avoid future problems. But it was to no avail, according to the mother, who said that the community refused to renew her lease.
A month before the deadline to move, the mother filed a discrimination complaint with a local fair housing agency. While the complaint was pending, the property was sold and, after an investigation, the new owners determined that the son was not a threat and allowed them to remain in the unit.
The mother sued the community for violating fair housing law, but the court granted the community’s request to dismiss the case.
The mother appealed. What did the court decide?
Decision: Reversed and sent back for further proceedings.
In February 2016, the appeals court reversed and sent the case back for further proceedings.
The court ruled that the mother could pursue her claim that the community violated fair housing law by making housing unavailable because of the son’s disability. In filing such a claim, the mother had to allege that her son had a disability, the community knew about the disability, and it took adverse action against them because of the disability. She did that: Her complaint alleged that the son had Down Syndrome, an intellectual disability that caused him to act like a 7-year-old and have difficulty making himself understood; the community knew about it; and it took adverse action because it didn’t want him to live there and wouldn’t listen to the mother’s explanations about her son’s behavior. It didn’t matter that the community didn’t follow through with her eviction after the new owners took over. The damages the family allegedly suffered couldn’t be ignored simply because the new owner stepped in and allowed them to stay.
The community could also face liability for failure to reasonably accommodate the son’s disability. The community argued that she never asked for a reasonable accommodation, but she didn’t need to make a formal request—a resident can be said to make a request for accommodation when the community has “enough information to know of both the disability and the desire for an accommodation.” Based on the circumstances, there must be enough to cause a reasonable housing provider to make appropriate inquiries about the possible need for an accommodation.
Taken together, the allegations in the complaint met this standard. The mother said she told the manager that her son was not making threats, but describing a cartoon and couldn’t explain himself, and she was trying to make arrangements for his care while she was at work to prevent future problems. From those circumstances, it was enough to show that the mother was asking for an accommodation in the form of an exception to the community’s apparent policy of not renewing the leases of residents who made threats.
Furthermore, the allegations in the complaint supported the resident's claim that the community failed to consider, much less make, the reasonable accommodation to let them remain in the unit while she made arrangements for the son to be placed in offsite care to avoid future incidents or misunderstandings.
- Hunt v. Aimco Properties, L.P., February 2016
Case Note: The court also ruled that the community could be liable for subjecting the resident to different terms and conditions of tenancy because of her son’s disability. The complaint alleged that, because of his disability, community employees yelled at him and forced him to clean the clubhouse bathroom. And, after he made the perceived threats, the son wasn’t allowed to go into the community room, office, and other common areas. It didn’t matter that it was the deputy, not the manager, who told him to stay away: It was a community employee who escalated the situation into a law enforcement problem. Though fair housing law doesn’t protect anyone who poses a direct threat to the safety or property of others, further further proceedings were needed to determine whether the community’s actions were justified.