This is a post about reasonable accommodations that does not involve an emotional support animal. I cannot remember the last time I did not write about dogs. Recently, the Pennsylvania Federal Courts ruled that an Association does not need to provide the exact accommodation requested, if the Association offers accommodations that achieve the same function.
In this case, a resident needed a walker to get around. She would use the walker to get from her condominium unit to the lobby of the building. From there, she would leave the walker in the lobby of the building and use her cane to get to her car. The resident insisted that she needed to leave her walker in the lobby of the building.
The Association was not happy leaving the walker in the lobby. It offered a handful of possible solutions. The Association offered to store the walker at the concierge’s desk and retrieve it anytime she asked. They offered to have someone bring the walker to her parking space so she could use it to get out of the car. This building has valet parking, so the Association offered to allow her to use the valet parking (presumably free of charge). The resident rejected all of these solutions. She insisted that she needed to store her walker in the lobby.
The resident sued the Association under the Fair Housing Act, claiming that they did not provide a reasonable accommodation for her disability. The District Court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals both sided with the Association. In doing so, the Court made two extremely important points that help guide Associations.
What is “necessary”?
First of all, the Court looked at the goal of the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act says an Association must provide accommodations that are necessary to allow the disabled person an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their home. Determining what is necessary means looking at all of the alternatives. To examine this point, the Court quoted noted legal scholars – The Rolling Stones – by explaining:
You can’t always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes
You just might find
You get what you need.
The Court also remarked that food is necessary for survival. But “if soup and salad are on offer, a sandwich is not necessary.” In this case, the Court decided that any of the alternatives offered by the Association would give the resident an opportunity to enjoy her unit. Just because it was not the one she would have picked does not mean the Association was not offering a reasonable accommodation. The resident’s requested accommodation was not necessary in light of the other possible solutions. Because of this, the Fair Housing Act did not require the Association to accept her solution.
Necessity can be a legal question.
In most reasonable accommodation cases, a trial is necessary to decide whether the resident is disabled, and/or whether he or she needs an accommodation. Those are usually questions of fact, meaning they have to go to a trial to be decided. This case was decided on a Motion to Dismiss. The case was over before the Association needed to go through discovery.
This may seem like legal trivia. But if the situation is right, this could be a huge benefit for Associations. In this case, the Court looked at the resident’s request and the Association’s options. The Court decided that the resident did not state that the alternatives were not good enough to meet her needs. Because of this, the Court decided to dismiss the case as a matter of law. This outcome will not happen very often. But if it is appropriate in a specific situation, an Association should try to have a case dismissed as early in the litigation as possible.
The Associations and property managers that I work with sincerely want to help disabled persons use and enjoy their homes. This case is a reminder that the Association is not required to accept every request that is made. If the Association can come up with a reasonable alternative, it is allowed to offer and pursue that alternative.