Association’s Last-Minute Accommodation Didn’t Stop Discrimination Lawsuit

Association’s Last-Minute Accommodation Didn’t Stop Discrimination Lawsuit

As the manager of a homeowners association, you’ll inevitably have to evaluate requests for accommodation from members. A common request is for support animals—that is, animals that provide support for all types of disabilities, including emotional support. Unfortunately, there may be claims of discrimination if requests are denied. In some cases, associations that have been scared by these claims have ultimately tried to avoid litigation by giving in and granting the request after a drawn-out process. But be aware that granting the request doesn’t preclude a homeowner making the request from taking the association to court in some circumstances. If the process to get to the accommodation request being granted was discriminatory, the association could still be on the hook. A recent court case serves as a warning.

There, a resident rented a condo unit for three years from its owner, who was a member of the community’s homeowners association. She lived there with her minor daughter under a month-to-month tenancy. Allegedly, the resident was under medical supervision for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In early 2017, the resident claimed that her doctors suggested that she get an emotional support animal. Some months later, she said she discussed it with the condo owner and submitted a written accommodation request, along with a letter from her healthcare provider stating that she needed a service dog due to her PTSD. At that time, the resident said that the unit owner didn’t raise any objections, telling her only to "pick up after" the dog.

Soon after, however, the resident received a letter from the unit owner, informing her that she couldn’t have a dog in the unit because dogs weren’t allowed at the community. Allegedly, the unit owner stated that she had spoken to the HOA manager, who she said was sure to “fight it.” The resident believed that the unit owner was referring to the HOA’s treasurer, who is also its registered agent.

A short time later, the resident claimed that the unit owner sent her a text in which she was threatened with eviction. In response, the resident said she gave the unit owner a second letter from her doctor stating her medical need for an emotional support dog. About a week later, the unit owner allegedly sent the resident a notice to vacate, indicating that her month-to-month tenancy was terminated as of the end of the month.

The resident hired a lawyer, who contacted the HOA manager to request information about the community’s reasonable accommodation policy. Allegedly, the manager refused the request and referred the lawyer to the HOA’s counsel, whom the lawyer contacted to request a reasonable accommodation.

According to the complaint, it was a day or so later—on the day before the resident’s tenancy was to terminate—that the HOA’s attorney notified the resident that her reasonable accommodation request for an emotional support dog was granted. Nevertheless, the resident sued the HOA, its manager, and the unit owner for discriminating against her because of her disability and unlawfully denying her reasonable accommodation request.

The community asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that the resident couldn’t sue because the community had already granted her accommodation request and she still lived there with the dog.

The court allowed the resident to pursue most of her fair housing claims but dismissed any claim that she was treated differently than other residents because of her disability.

The court refused to dismiss the resident’s claim that the community discriminated against her because of her disability. The complaint alleged that the community attempted to evict her, served her with termination notices, and harassed her after she made a disability-related reasonable accommodation request to keep an emotional support animal.

The court said she could pursue the claim even though she wasn’t actually evicted—and was allowed to live there with her assistance animal—when the community granted her accommodation request just before her tenancy was to end. Fair housing law protects renters not only from eviction, but also from discriminatory actions that would lead to eviction but for an intervening cause.

The resident could also pursue her failure-to-accommodate claim. Even though the community ultimately granted her request, the resident alleged that the nearly two-month delay between her initial request to her landlord and the attorney’s letter granting her request was unreasonable, and in essence amounted to the same thing as an outright denial [Carlson v. Sunshine Villas HOA Inc., May 2018].