Florida District Court decision (March 13, 2014).
This case involves a dispute between a homeowners association and members over the members ability to keep a service dog (Sorenson) in their condominium as a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). One of the members, Deborah, has multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair. The accommodation was requested because the association had a pet policy that said residents could not have a pet, other than one cat or fish, without the consent of the board of directors but no pet will be permitted that weights more than 20 pounds at maturity.
After submitting her request for the accommodation (permission to keep Sorenson as Deborahs service dog), the association requested that Deborah provide copies of medical records substantiating that she had multiple sclerosis, is disabled within the meaning of the FHA, and suffers from various symptoms. Deborah provided the requested records and additional information substantiating that Sorenson was a certified service dog that had been trained to help her with activities that Deborah had difficulty performing.
Despite the fact that Deborah had provided sufficient information for the association to grant the requested accommodation, the association decided that the information was insufficient and it filed a declaratory relief action in which it sought a court determination as to: (i) whether or not the association had to grant Deborah an exemption from its no-pets policy in order for her to keep Sorenson; and (ii) the extent of the records the association was entitled to under the FHA to evaluate the requested accommodation.
The members defended the associations declaratory relief action and filed counterclaims against the association, its attorney and the president of the associations board of directors for various violations of the FHA. In the counterclaim, the members sought injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages, attorney fees and costs.
Based on several prior court decisions, the court stated the following key points:
a. That to prevail on a claim that a housing provider refused to reasonably accommodate a disability, a plaintiff must establish that he or she: (i) is disabled or handicapped within the meaning of the FHA; (ii) requested a reasonable accommodation; (ii) the requested accommodation was necessary to afford the person the opportunity to use and enjoy his or her dwelling as well as the public and common-use areas; and (iv) the defendant(s) refused to make the requested accommodation.
b. That the extent of the information the association was entitled to request was: (i) information that would enable the association to verify the disability (qualifying disability information), and; (ii) information that would show the relationship between the disability and the need for the requested accommodation (nexus information).
c. That a housing providers inquiry to obtain reliable qualifying disability and nexus information need not be highly intrusive and that, in most cases , an individuals medical records or detailed information about the nature of a persons disability is not necessary. It is only when either the disability or the disability related need for the accommodation are not obvious that the provider may request reliable qualifying disability or nexus information and then the inquiry is limited to precisely what is not obvious.
d. A housing provider that refuses to make a decision unless a requestor provides unreasonably excessive information could be found to have constructively denied the request by stonewalling and short-circuiting the process or by unreasonably delaying a response to a request for an accommodation.
e. As a general rule, housing providers should cooperate with residents to resolve disputes over reasonable accommodations rather than turning to the courts.
f. Providers should be aware that persons with disabilities typically have the most accurate knowledge about the functional limitations posed by their disability.
g. An individual is not obligated to accept an alternative accommodation suggested by the provider if he or she believes it will not meet his or her needs and the requested accommodation is reasonable.
h. An accommodation is not reasonable if it imposes an undue financial and administrative burden on the housing provider or if it would fundamentally alter the nature of the providers operations. A fundamental alteration is a modification that alters the essential nature of a providers operations.
i. A housing provider is required to make a reasonable accommodation if it may be necessary to afford a disabled resident an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling and the public / common-use areas.
j. A housing provider cannot condition a disabled persons reasonable and necessary accommodation on obtaining liability insurance.
k. Individual board members or agents can be held liable when they have personally committed or contributed to a FHA violation.
l. Punitive damages are available under the FHA for a refusal-to-accommodate claim if the court determines that the defendants conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others. The conduct must amount to discrimination in the face of a perceived risk that his or her actions will violate federal law (a plaintiff must show that a defendant had an awareness or knowledge that they were acting in violation of federal law and not an awareness that he or she was engaging in discrimination).
In analyzing the facts, the court found that: (i) the members provided the association detailed and specific qualifying disability and nexus information and one could not reasonably doubt that Deborah was disabled and that she needed an accommodation; (ii) that having Sorenson as an accommodation would help ameliorate the effects of her disability; (iii) that, given the dispositive nature of the information that was provided to the association, its demands for more information were excessive, unreasonable and an unnecessary intrusion; (iv) the essential nature of the associations operations was to provide housing; (v) allowing Deborah to keep Sorenson would not fundamentally alter the association as it would still be able to offer housing; and (vi) that the defendants perceived the risk that their actions may violate federal law, thus subjecting them to claims for punitive damages. These facts enabled the court to conclude that the facts strongly weighed in favor of concluding that the defendants had constructively denied the members accommodation request and that the members had alleged a plausible refusal-to-accommodate claim under the FHA.
See decision: Sabal_Palm_Condos._of_Pine_I