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What happens when a board questions the good faith of an owner’s request for a “reasonable accommodation”?
AUTHORRichard Siegler & Dale Degenshein
PAGE #pp. 48-49
Courts must balance the rights of apartment owners against the rights of a board to enforce its rules.
What happens when a board questions the good faith of an apartment owner’s request for a “reasonable accommodation”? What are the standards a court looks to? Two recent cases – Matter of Delkap Management v. NYS Division of Human Rights, decided by an appellate court, and Temple v. Hudson View Owners Corp., decided by a lower court – address these questions.
In Delkap, the shareholder had lived in Lindenwood Village Section C Cooperative in Queens since 1988. In 2007, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and then in 2008 with cardiac disorders. In August 2010, the shareholder’s daughter moved in with her and brought her a dog, in violation of the co-op’s no-pet policy. Two weeks later, the shareholder asked that she be permitted to keep the pet as “therapy.”
Although the shareholder provided a letter from her physician, the board forbade the animal and sued to evict her. She, in turn, filed a complaint with the Division of Human Rights (DHR), charging discrimination. At a hearing, the shareholder presented a letter from her doctor, together with his responses to a questionnaire sent to him by the DHR. The shareholder testified that, since obtaining the dog, her arrhythmia had decreased and her arthritic discomfort had been lessened because she was more physically active.
Sometime after the hearing concluded, the board directed the shareholder to remove her dog from the apartment, stating, erroneously, that the DHR had issued a final order in its favor. The shareholder moved out. An administrative law judge at the DHR subsequently ruled that the co-op had discriminated and that she should have been permitted to keep her dog. The judge, saying that the co-op had retaliated against the shareholder for her lawsuit, awarded monetary damages and penalties. The co-op appealed.
The appellate court said that the shareholder had demonstrated her disability but had failed to present medical or psychological evidence that the dog was necessary for her to enjoy the apartment; that she had lived there for 20 years without a dog; that her disabilities had been diagnosed several years before her daughter moved in with the dog; and that it was only two weeks after the daughter arrived that the shareholder had asked for a reasonable accommodation. Ultimately, the court determined that the DHR’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence.
But the story doesn’t end there. The next question was whether the board had retaliated against the shareholder. The shareholder had to show that she was engaged in a protected activity about which the board was aware, that she suffered from an adverse action taken by the board, and that there was a causal connection between the two. The DHR’s determination that the board improperly retaliated against the shareholder was affirmed. However, the court directed a reduction in the monetary award, limiting compensatory damages to $2,500, punitive damages to $2,500, and the penalty to $2,000.
In Temple v. Hudson View Owners Corp., the plaintiffs – husband and wife, both over age 65 and both disabled – lived at the Hudson View cooperative in Yonkers. With permission from the board, they used two assigned parking spots for about 13 years. In January 2016, they were advised they had to give up one spot; they were also told to remove their items from the storage area next to the other spot. Citing their disabilities, the Temples asked that the board give its assurance that it would not take away the remaining parking space. The board requested medical information regarding their disabilities but refused to give them additional time to submit it. After that, the Temples sued. The board responded by having the superintendent request that the Temples empty the storage space immediately.
The Temples initially sought a temporary restraining order, which would have allowed them to use both parking spots. The court denied the request, saying there was no reason why the Temples could not get by with one spot. The co-op moved to dismiss the entire action. After setting out the legal factors, the court focused on whether the Temples had demonstrated the need for a reasonable accommodation, looking specifically at whether the accommodation – two parking spots – was necessary for them to use and enjoy their apartment.
Allowances for parking have been found by other cases to be a reasonable accommodation. But here, the Temples never offered any authority for the proposition that two parking spaces must be provided to disabled tenants of one apartment. The Temples merely claimed that the second spot was a “necessity” but offered nothing to support that position. The court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss.
Courts must balance the rights of apartment owners against the rights of a board to enforce its rules (and the rights of other apartment owners to expect even-handed enforcement of those rules). Perhaps the court in Hudson View explained the balance best, noting that the disability statutes are “not intended to elevate plaintiffs above their fellow residents. The law requires only equality, not that a ‘superior advantage’ be given.” Thus, both apartment owners and boards must think about accommodations in this context: will the accommodation allow the apartment owner to enjoy the apartment as any other resident would?
For Delkap and co-op:
Sperber Denenberg & Kahan
For Division: Caroline J. Downey
For Temple: Pro Se
For Hudson View: Finger & Finger