Judge for Yourself: Resident with Mobility Impairment Sues Community

A resident in a senior living community had multiple sclerosis and used an electric wheelchair. The community claimed that, throughout her tenancy, she routinely operated the wheelchair at excessive speeds and without adequate control. Allegedly, she damaged the walls and front door to her unit and hurt two people with her electric wheelchair—once by driving over a staff member’s foot and then running into a dining room table, causing hot coffee to spill on another resident.

According to the community, the manager and his staff repeatedly asked her to slow down, pad her chair, and stop damaging property and endangering other residents. After the coffee spill, the manager sent her a written warning letter, asking her not to use the chair in areas where other residents were present. When she allegedly ignored the requests, the community took steps to terminate her tenancy.

The resident, who denied that the operation of her wheelchair damaged property or harmed others, consulted an attorney, who asked the community to allow the resident to propose an accommodation plan. After extensive negotiations, the attorneys worked out an agreement—among other things, it required her to use a manual wheelchair unless she was accompanied by an escort provided by the community. Nevertheless, the resident refused to sign the agreement.

The resident eventually moved out and sued the community for disability discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. The community asked the court for judgment without a trial.

What did the court decide?

ANSWER In a July 2010 case involving a senior housing community in Minnesota, the court sided with the community and dismissed the disability discrimination claim.

The court rejected the resident’s claim that the community discriminated against her by terminating her tenancy because of her disability. There was no evidence that the community ended her tenancy; rather, it engaged in extensive negotiations in an attempt to accommodate her disability until she voluntarily moved out. Nor did the community unlawfully impose the condition of mandatory escorts on her use of the electric wheelchair in common areas. The court ruled that the community had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the escort condition—it was necessary to prevent property damage and maintain the safety and residents and staff. The resident failed to prove that was merely an excuse to cover up unlawful discrimination.

The court also rejected her claim that the community violated fair housing law by refusing to grant her requests for a reasonable accommodation. She alleged that she made numerous offers to pay for property damage, pad her chair, limit her speed, and use assistance when available, but that claim failed because she couldn’t prove the community denied her requests. Rather, the evidence indicated that the community accepted her requests after engaging in good faith negotiations with her attorney, but that she—not the community—refused to accept the agreement [Groteboer v. Eyota Economic Development Authority, July 2010].
To learn more about the fair housing rights of individuals with mobility impairments, see our March 2012 lesson, "Meeting Disability-Related Needs of Individuals with Mobility Impairments."