New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

What Is “Reasonable”?

May unit-owners recover damages (a) when the HOA refuses to allow their disabled visitors to park in a no-parking area close to their home; and (b) when the HOA permits them to install a concrete pad at their door only after the court intervenes? These were the questions raised in Carpenter v. Churchville Greene Homeowners’ Association Inc.

Plaintiffs Michael and Tina Carpenter brought an action pursuant to the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act. They alleged that the Churchville Greene Homeowners’ Association, members of the HOA’s board of directors, and Realty Performance Group (the managing agent) discriminated against them in housing because of the Carpenters’ disabilities. The Carpenters also alleged that the denial of their request for a reasonable accommodation was in retaliation for their having filed this action with respect to their claim that the HOA should have made an accommodation so that their disabled guests did not have to park in the parking lot.

The Carpenters were a married couple who both had severe disabilities that required them to use motorized wheelchairs. They resided in the Churchville Greene housing development in Churchville, New York. They purchased their home in 2000. As residents of the development, the Carpenters were members of the HOA, which was governed by a board of directors.

The Carpenters claimed that the HOA did not permit parking on the private roads in the development and that the homeowners’ guests were required to park in a “remote parking lot.” The Carpenters claimed that, on many occasions, they had guests who were incapable of walking the distance from the parking lot to their home because of mobility disabilities. The Carpenters had, on several occasions, instructed their guests to park on the private road in front of their home. The Carpenters received warning letters from the HOA regarding their failure to follow the no parking rule. They claimed they were unable to have mobility-disabled guests at their home as a result.

In July 2009, the Carpenters requested a variance from the HOA from the no parking rule. The Carpenters claimed that the HOA decided that, due to fire safety concerns, the only accommodation it could provide was to designate two handicapped parking spots in the parking lot. The Carpenters alleged that this was not a reasonable accommodation as the parking lot was too far away for disabled guests. They also claimed that the HOA enforced the parking regulation unevenly and that the HOA held a yearly community function where many vehicles were permitted to park on the street. Based on their claim that they were denied a reasonable accommodation in parking, the Carpenters filed this lawsuit.

Within a few weeks of filing, a dispute arose between the parties regarding a modification to the Carpenters’ home. The Carpenters were making improvements to their home, which were approved by the HOA. Their contractor offered to replace broken paving stones in the yard to make it easier to access their home by wheelchair.

The Carpenters requested a variance from the HOA to allow them to replace the paving stones with a concrete pad. The HOA board voted initially to deny the request, pending its receipt of more information. The parties’ attorneys then attempted to resolve the issue. Finally, the attorney for the Carpenters sent the court a letter detailing the issue and asking the court to intervene to assist the parties in resolving the dispute because, if the weather turned cold, the concrete pad could not be installed. The Carpenters claimed that the HOA improperly delayed installation. The HOA maintained that it had not denied the request but was merely seeking further information and help from a local architect who had assisted the HOA with other projects. The court discussed the matter with the parties and ordered the contractor to complete the installation.

The court stated: “Given the circumstances, and the presumed willingness of the [HOA] to accommodate a reasonable request to satisfy the needs of the homeowners...I directed the contractor to proceed and complete the job.” The court also stated that even though the parking claim remained pending, the collateral issue of the concrete pad had been fully resolved.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, i.e., they made a motion asking that the court dismiss the complaint as there were no issues of fact to be determined. Specifically, they argued that the claim concerning the pad was moot and that the Carpenters had not asserted an issue that could be tried with respect to the individual board member defendants or Realty.

As to the concrete pad, the defendants argued that it had been installed shortly after the request and the court had already recognized that the issue was resolved with the cooperation of the parties, rendering the claim moot. The court explained the rule that voluntary cessation of conduct will render a case moot if the defendant could demonstrate (1) that there was no reasonable expectation that the alleged violation would recur; and (2) interim events have irrevocably eradicated the effects of the violation. The court found that defendants met their burden. The Carpenters had been granted the relief they sought when their contractor was directed by the court, with the cooperation of both parties, to install the concrete pad. This was within three weeks of the Carpenters’ initial request. The court dismissed this claim, as it was moot.

The court next discussed the remaining claims. The applicable statute stated that when facts are unavailable to a non-moving party, the court could allow that party to obtain discovery. The court explained the court requirements on this point: the party resisting summary judgment on the ground that it needed discovery had to show what facts it sought, how they were to be obtained, how they were expected to create a genuine issue of material fact, what effort was used to obtain the facts, and why the party was unable to obtain the facts.

The Carpenters sought discovery regarding the decision-making process of the HOA and Realty with respect to the Carpenters’ requests for a variance for parking and the concrete pads to show that there was a genuine material issue of fact as to whether the decisions were made with a discriminatory or retaliatory motive. The Carpenters argued that this discovery, in the form of depositions of the individual board members and the staff at Realty, would have allowed them to show that the individuals and Realty were liable. They alleged that they were unable to obtain this information as the defendants filed the motion less than one month after they filed their answer.

The court explained that the Carpenters would have to show, with respect to the reasonable accommodation in parking claim, that disabled guest parking close to their home was “necessary” for the equal use and enjoyment of their home in light of their disabilities and that a reasonable accommodation was denied. Further, if the claim was that the parking rule was unevenly enforced, the Carpenters had to produce evidence that animus against the protected group was a significant factor in the position taken by the board.

The individual defendants claimed that, as members of the board, they could not have been held individually liable for acts performed in their capacity as board members. Realty claimed it could not be liable as it was merely an agent for the HOA. The defendants argued that the Carpenters had not pointed to any individual acts other than the votes cast as board members. Nor did the Carpenters point to any facts that suggested that Realty was individually discriminating against the Carpenters. However, the court noted, this was precisely the information the Carpenters were looking for.

The court granted the Carpenters’ requests to continue discovery based upon their claims for a reasonable accommodation in parking and retaliation, including to hold depositions. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment was denied with leave to refile.

Comment: The court first made clear when discussing the concrete pad that, once an issue is resolved with no likelihood that it will recur, the matter is no longer actionable. We suspect that this is particularly the case in this instance as the matter was resolved within three weeks of plaintiffs’ request that they be permitted to install the concrete pad and that no ascertainable damages accrued during that period.

With respect to the parking issue, the court noted in a footnote the plaintiffs’ burden – specifically that allowing disabled guests to park close to their home is “necessary for the equal use and enjoyment of their home in light of their own disabilities …” We question whether the plaintiffs will be able to meet this burden as it is their friends – and not the plaintiffs themselves – who apparently require a parking accommodation.

Interestingly, although the HOA denied the request based on fire safety concerns, the decision does not indicate that the defendants presented any evidence that parking on the private road would constitute a violation of an applicable fire code. We question whether if this were the case, it would have affected the court’s determination.

In sum, the court gave the plaintiffs an opportunity to prove their claims by allowing them to take the depositions of the individual board members and management company. The court also gave the defendants the right to make another motion for summary judgment at the conclusion of those depositions, i.e., after the plaintiffs had an opportunity to obtain the information they said they needed.

Finally, while this case involved an HOA, the legal principles at issue here would apply if the property was either a co-op or a condominium.

 

 

Attorneys:
For Plaintiffs
Laurie Marie Lambrix, representative of Monroe County Legal Assistance Corporation
For Defendants:
Phillips Lytle

 

 

 

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