May a unit-owner recover damages under the Fair Housing Act based on a claim of disability discrimination when her homeowners’ association insisted she clean her patio, which was cluttered, messy, and posed a problem for her neighbors?
This was the question in Taylor v. Harbour Pointe Homeowners Association and Candace Graser. Suzanne Taylor sought declaratory and injunctive relief and money damages under the Fair Housing Act and New York State law based upon allegations of disability discrimination, trespass, and conversion (essentially, theft) against the defendants. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint.
Harbour Pointe is a homeowners’ association located on the waterfront in Buffalo, New York. Candace Graser is the board president. Harbour Pointe’s homeowners regularly complained about the appearance of both the exterior and interior of Taylor’s unit and the contents of her glass-enclosed patio, which was visible from the main road in the community. Taylor did not dispute that she was made aware of the problem, but alleged that she suffered from clinical depression – “major disorder recurrent” – which prevented her from maintaining her home in a tidy manner.
In August 2005, Taylor was staying with a friend following the death of her dog. Taylor and Graser spoke by phone regarding the appearance of the patio. Graser suggested moving a barbecue and other visible items to storage and placing a lattice on the outside of the glass enclosure to disguise the clutter. Taylor told Graser to “do whatever you need to do.”
In May 2008, Taylor was in Florida visiting her ailing mother. Graser sent her an e-mail notifying Taylor that there were three units for sale and that Taylor’s patio was the subject of discussion. Taylor explained that she would be home in a few days and would prioritize addressing the issue.
Upon her return in June 2008, Taylor and Graser spoke and Taylor explained that she was trying to make progress. Taylor said she would rent a dumpster at the end of the summer. Graser explained that the matter had to be resolved immediately in order to address the complaints of the neighbors, the realtors, and the prospective buyers. Graser suggested that Taylor put up curtains on the patio windows.
Shortly after this conversation, Taylor went to Ithaca for her college reunion. Taylor’s neighbor, Norman Cramp, noticed that she had left her garage door open. Cramp tried calling Taylor, but he could not reach her. He sent her an e-mail telling her that she had left her garage door up. She responded the next day and told him where to find the garage door closer. Apparently, before Cramp received Taylor’s responding e-mail, Cramp contacted Graser to discuss what to do about the garage door. Cramp, Graser, and another neighbor, George Woepperer, met that night in front of Taylor’s house. They entered Taylor’s enclosed patio through a sliding glass door that had been left open and entered the house using a key that Taylor had given to Cramp. They closed the garage door from the inside. They then went to the patio and decided to straighten things so Graser could access the windows in order to measure for the sheer curtains. They rearranged boxes, moved some boxes to the garage, and threw out some cardboard and old newspapers.
Taylor returned home a few days later to find that her patio had been cleaned out. She sent an e-mail to Graser and the homeowners’ association to complain about the trespass. She called the police and filed a police report, although she did not press charges.
On August 4, 2008, Taylor filed a complaint with federal and state agencies charging that Harbour Pointe discriminated against her because of her disability. The New York State Division of Human Rights found no evidence of a disability or that the accumulation or removal of clutter was related to a disability.
Taylor then filed this action in federal court claiming that Harbour Pointe and Graser failed to accommodate her disability, which exacerbated her depression and which caused embarrassment and economic damage. She alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act. Taylor also claimed that the defendants trespassed and converted her property when they went into her house and relocated her things.
The defendants moved for summary judgment to dismiss Taylor’s FHA claims, and argued that the trespass and conversion claims were not properly before the federal court.
The court discussed the nature of summary judgment – if there were no material issues of genuine fact, then the defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A factual dispute was genuine only if the evidence was such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for Taylor. Mere conclusions advanced by Taylor would have been insufficient, and she was required to show more than a scintilla of evidence and more than “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.”
The court then discussed the Fair Housing Act, which had been enacted by Congress in 1968 to prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. In 1988, it was amended to afford disabled individuals an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their homes.
The court explained the standard – in order to establish a claim for discrimination, Taylor needed to have shown that she suffered from a handicap; that Harbour Pointe and Graser knew or should have reasonably been expected to know of her handicap; that accommodations may have been necessary to permit her to use and enjoy her home; and that Harbour Pointe and Graser refused to make the accommodation. The court explained that until an accommodation was denied, there was no discrimination under the FHA.
Here, the court found that it was clear that Taylor did not make a sufficiently direct and specific request to put Harbour Pointe and Graser on notice that she required an accommodation to afford her an equal opportunity to use and enjoy her house. The court quoted from some of Taylor’s statements in the action, including her position that she had not requested an accommodation because Harbour Pointe had no authority to tell her what to put on the patio, and therefore she did not require an accommodation. She said that she told Graser that her recovery had to be at her own pace and that outside interference – somebody cleaning out her patio – would have set her back in recovery and “because instead of making progress that I can be proud of and building upon that to pull me out of my depression more, all it does is isolate me, make me feel accused and judged.” Graser testified that Taylor did not specifically tell her she suffered from depression.
Giving Taylor the benefit of every doubt, the court concluded that no juror could have judged that Taylor’s statement that she needed to clean the patio at her own pace constituted a sufficiently detailed request to trigger a reasonable accommodation. Rather, the court found that this statement represented little more than an effort to make Graser aware that helping Taylor clean her patio might have compromised her depression. The court put it simply: “In the absence of an actual request for a reasonable accommodation, there can be no denial, and in the absence of a denial,” there was no discrimination. Accordingly, the court dismissed the FHA claim.
The court then discussed whether it would retain jurisdiction over the trespass and conversion claims made by Taylor and concluded that since it dismissed the FHA claim, it would dismiss those claims too, although Taylor could bring them in state court.
Comment: We frequently see situations where apartment owners or homeowners are unable to keep their premises in a clean and orderly condition. This is important – as it was in this case – for maintaining the community and allowing the entire development to be at its best when neighbors are attempting to sell their homes. It is also important in vertical communities where often clutter brings bugs, odors, vermin, and other conditions to the apartment and neighboring apartments.
This case makes clear that a board is not required to make a reasonable accommodation to address a disability unless unit-owners advise that they have a disability and that an accommodation is necessary to allow them to enjoy their home. Here, while it appears that the plaintiff hinted at a disability, at no point did she specifically tell the board that she could not clean her patio because of depression or any other disability. Nor did she tell the board that her desire to clean the patio at her own pace and in her own time was a request for an accommodation that, if denied, would make her unable to use and enjoy her house.
While we cannot comment on whether the individuals in the community properly conducted themselves when they cleaned the patio and removed some items, we believe that it is the better practice to obtain a court order or a unit-owner’s specific consent before cleaning or moving items from that person’s dwelling.
For Plaintiff: Lindy Korn