I have had a handful of reasonable accommodation requests come across my desk over the last month with the same issue: when the leasing office gets a medical verification, the health care provider identifies that the resident has a medical or mental condition (which is appropriate), but the verification (typically in a letter) does not assert that the resident is disabled. The distinction is important as only individuals with a recognized disability (as that term is defined under federal law) are entitled to a reasonable accommodation (or reasonable modification) under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

For example, if a letter notes a resident was diagnosed with “depression” and requires an assistance animal, management is absolutely entitled to confirm if the “depression” rises to the level of a disability. Indeed, there are countless mental and medical conditions which may – or may not – be severe enough to qualify as a disability. Also, two different medical verifications identified “therapeutic regimens” or “treatment plans” – but did not assert that an emotional support animal was part of that regimen or plan. In such a circumstance, the leasing office can also seek supplemental information from the health care provider to confirm that there is a nexus (or link) between the disability and the requested accommodation (or modification).

Again, I am not attempting to seek confidential health care information or medical records from our residents. I am not trying to violate the health care privacy laws (such as HIPPA). In an era of highly questionable medical verifications (many of which are purchased over the internet with a credit card), however, I am simply attempting to confirm that a verification is legitimate and is not from a resident without a disability and/or who is not eligible for the requested accommodation. Hope that makes sense.

Just A Thought.

Professional apartment management companies continue to face an ever increasing number of emotional support animal medical verification letters that are purchased over the internet following just a few clicks on a computer and use of a credit card. As leasing offices do our best to ensure the medical verifications are legitimate (and we want to approve assistance animals for those Americans who are truly disabled), I nevertheless wind up defending against any number of housing discrimination complaints asserting that management is required to accept letters purchased over the internet.

In an effort to help with the review and evaluation process of these emotional support animal medical verification letters, here are some of the issues to be on the lookout for:

  1.  Emotional Support Animal “Registration” Services. Many of the web sites promise to send you an animal registration card to somehow confer magical rights. The truth is assistance animals are not required to be registered. There is no government agency that “registers” these animals.  There is no legitimate approved list.
  2. Instant Approval. A medical verification should come from a licensed or otherwise credentialed health care or medical professional. I find it exceedingly unlikely that any reputable therapist or doctor would instantly approve an emotional support animal based on an online questionnaire and essentially a one-time self-diagnosis.
  3. Bargain or Low Cost Verification Letters. The law intended that an assistance animal medical verification letter come from a licensed therapist or doctor who has an established relationship with a patient. Sounds good, right? But go online and you will easily find what I refer to as the exceedingly questionable internet sites that sell emotional support animal medical verifications for $69.99 (or $149 in you want both a housing and an airline letter) charged on a credit card.

While my leasing offices will always engage in the interactive process with a resident or applicant who makes any reasonable accommodation request, more management companies are seeking supplemental information when we see 10 or 20 of essentially the exact same letter from a handful of the same online sources. There are other red/yellow flags, but these three are common.

In addition to getting the complaints dismissed, my other goal is to educate the investigating agency to make certain they know about the fake internet sites.

Just A Thought.

Three properties I represent (two on the west coast and one on the east coast) are currently involved with residents who separately have submitted reasonable accommodation requests to their respective leasing offices.  All good as professional apartment management has the obligation under the law the review, evaluate, and respond to each of them.

The three requests came from residents with different claimed disabilities (none of which were obvious or otherwise known), but they have the same request:  that management make a financial accommodation because of a disability.  The typical reasonable accommodation, of course, involves a change in a rule or a policy designed to ensure a disabled resident is still able to enjoy the full benefits of his or her housing.  The three submissions ask that management:  not raise rent, accept less for rent, and to cease eviction proceedings from a resident who is behind on her rent but does not wish to leave.

Setting aside the facts that none of the three requests (again for claimed disabilities which were not obvious and were not known to the leasing office) were medically verified, I have legitimate questions about each because of the financial nature of the requested remedy.  Now, while I understand (and agree) that the law presumes there may be a small financial cost associated with granting a request, I am unaware of guidance mandating that management reduce agreed upon rent as an accommodation.  For example, if a resident on the third floor of a building without an elevator suffers a mobility impairment, it could well be appropriate to let the resident out of his or her lease early as an accommodation, without charging any otherwise due early termination fees.  That is a cost to management.  Again, the point of the law is to help disabled residents obtain the full benefit of their housing— not to get a benefit not available to anyone else.

To phrase it another way, every resident (disabled and non-disabled alike) would benefit from a reduction in rent, not paying rent, or not getting evicted for failing to pay rent.  What I fear we are now seeing is residents (with or without counsel) attempting to use the reasonable accommodation process to avoid their financial obligations because of a claimed disability.

In my experience, financial accommodations like those sought here are not part of our federal Fair Housing Act.

Just A Thought.

Earlier this month, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) announced that it settled a housing discrimination action against a property owner brought by a man who claimed he was denied the opportunity to rent a home because he was not legally married to his partner.  The allegations included that the potential resident was offered a lease for a home in San Diego, but upon disclosing that he planned to live with his boyfriend, the potential resident was told that both he and his partner had to individually satisfy a $90,000 yearly income standard. Following an inquiry about whether the two men could aggregate their incomes to satisfy the income requirement, they were told that they could only do so if they were married. And as the two individuals were not married, the two potential renters had to find another home to rent together.

After an investigation, the DFEH found probable cause to believe a violation of state law took place. Following a mandatory conciliation process, the property owner and manager agreed to pay $7,500 to resolve the claims. As is common in these types of cases, in addition to paying the money, the owner/manager was required to attend annual fair housing training and to ensure that fair housing brochures are provided to current and future applicants for the next two years.

The lesson here is that California, like some other states, includes additional protected classes in its state anti-discrimination law (in addition to those covered in the federal Fair Housing Act). Other protected classes in California include: sexual orientation; gender identity and gender expression; marital status; medical condition; ancestry; source of income; age (people over the age of 40); genetic information (also known as family medical history); and any arbitrary discrimination (which means a person cannot be discriminated against for any other arbitrary reason).

If you are involved in the professional apartment management business, you must know the state (or even local) laws in your jurisdictions to help ensure you comply with them. If you are uncertain, ask a lawyer like me for guidance on protected classes where your property is located.

Just A Thought.

 

At the end of last month, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) issued a formal charge of housing discrimination against the developer, owner, construction company, and architect of a multifamily property in New York, asserting that the parties failed to design and construct a condominium development in Queens, NY in compliance with the accessibility requirements of the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

The FHA, of course, mandates that multifamily housing built after March 1991 contain accessible features for disabled individuals. These requirements include accessible kitchens, bathrooms, common areas, wider doors, and lower controls that can be reached by residents who use wheelchairs. These design and construction features are required to be included in order for multifamily properties to be in compliance with the law.

HUD’s charge of discrimination followed an investigation which was started with the filing of a discrimination complaint back in 2012 by a resident at the property asserting that the Respondents designed and constructed a building with any number of inaccessible features. As a part of its investigation, HUD conducted an on-site inspection and claims it discovered various design and construction problems. Specifically, HUD now asserts the property lacks safe and accessible routes between units and common areas in addition to issues with the property’s main entrance, hallways, shared outdoor terrace, patios, trash rooms, and its parking garage. Finally, HUD’s complaint alleges its investigation revealed multiple violations inside individual units, including inaccessible doors, bathrooms, kitchens, and environmental controls.

The case will now be heard by a HUD Administrative Law Judge, unless one of the parties chooses to send the case to federal court. As regular readers of this space are aware, I always know there are at least two sides to every story and that a complaint simply puts forward one side. The takeaway for defense lawyers like me, however, is that we need to advise our clients to follow the design and construction requirements contained in the law/regulations. Indeed, there are even safe harbors to help prevent complaints like this.

Just A Thought.

As predicted in this space a couple of months ago, on June 20, 2018, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) published a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register entitled “Reconsideration of HUD’s Implementation of the Fair Housing Act’s Disparate Impact Standard.”

What’s going on here?  Here is a summary, in English (as opposed to legalese):

“Disparate impact” involves testing a rule or a policy that looks neutral on its face, but which has a discriminatory impact on a protected class. While the phrase “disparate impact” is not contained in the text of the Fair Housing Act (FHA), courts have read the phrase into the law, most recently with a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which held, by a 5-4 margin, that “disparate impact” can be used in certain circumstances. It was clear to the Obama Administration that a “disparate impact” case was likely to reach the Supreme Court (as two prior FHA cases were accepted by the high court but those matters settled prior to the justices issuing a decision).

In an effort to bolster the use of “disparate impact” in fair housing cases, HUD adopted a Disparate Impact Rule (if I recall correctly, in 2013) discussing how “disparate impact” can and should be used in fair housing matters. Now, the Trump Administration is taking another look at HUD’s 2013 rule to see if indeed it is consistent with the Supreme Court’s 2015 FHA decision.

With its notice, HUD is requesting public comments related to:

  1. Are the Disparate Impact Rule’s burdens of proof appropriately assigned?
  2. Does the Disparate Impact Rule’s definition of “discriminatory effect” strike the appropriate balance for legitimate claims? In other words, are legitimate claims protected and are unmeritorious claims discarded?
  3. Should there be a safe harbor or other defenses to claims of “disparate impact” liability?
  4. Should the Disparate Impact Rule be revised to improve clarity, reduce uncertainty, decrease regulatory burdens, or assist the housing community and the public in determining just what is lawful under the FHA?

Comments to HUD are due on or before August 20, 2018. I am not breaking new ground here in predicting the Trump Administration’s view concerning the appropriateness of “disparate impact” in fair housing claims will be different from that of the Obama Administration.

As the lawyer for professional apartment management, my view continues to be that I want clarity in the law. I want to be able to tell my clients the rules of the road. If “disparate impact” is included in the FHA, fine. If it is outside the statute, just let us know. Uncertainty, however, is not helpful as we attempt to provide the best advice we can.

There will be more to come here.

Just A Thought.

Earlier this week a number of fair housing advocacy groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Maryland asserting that a major financial institution and a property management company are violating the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by exposing predominately minority communities to economic harm, increased crime, and a less than optimal quality of life by failing to market and maintain its foreclosed properties in the same condition as the financial institution does in communities with a majority of Caucasian residents.

Based on a claimed multi-year investigation involving over 1,600 foreclosed homes in more than 30 metropolitan areas, the complaint alleges that bank-owned homes in communities of color are more likely to have overgrown grass, unsecured doors as well as various health and safety problems when compared to better maintained homes located in predominantly white communities.

The plaintiffs assert they want to hold the defendants responsible for “unjust policies and practices” while the bank contends it applies “uniform practices to the management and marketing of vacant bank-owned properties…regardless of their location.”

This is one of a series of actions filed by fair housing advocacy groups against lenders across the country in an effort to use disparate impact to assert claims of discrimination by banks and property management entities in predominantly African American and Latino communities. These groups are using the FHA in an effort to combat perceived segregation. Defendants will rely on their records and will likely try to increase the size of the statistical areas identified by the plaintiffs in an effort to weaken the disparate impact claims involving demographics.  There is a long way to go here.  I will be certain to report back as the case progresses.

Just A Thought.

 

Last week, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) announced settlement of a disability discrimination Fair Housing Act (FHA) case from San Francisco, CA.  A family filed a fair housing complaint asserting their apartment community failed to transfer them in violation of the FHA as their infant son had a disability and management was required to transfer them to a non-smoking unit.

The infant involved here has a condition that impacts his breathing. The family requested a transfer to a smoke-free building as a reasonable accommodation related to the young man’s disability. The family asserted that instead of moving them to a smoke free building, management simply provided them an air purifier. HUD concluded that solution was insufficient and brokered the settlement.

Pursuant to the terms of the agreement, the Respondents agreed to pay $12,000 and develop a grievance procedure that complies with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

As I have written in this space and elsewhere, complaints concerning disability discrimination now reflect over 50% of all of the housing discrimination complaints filed across the country. My docket similarly reflects the shift confirming that disability claims make up more than half of all the complaints that cross my desk. Indeed, HUD reports that in 2017 the department (as well as its state and local fair housing advocacy groups) investigated over 4,500 complaints in which disability discrimination was claimed. This is a trend which is simply not going to go away. Professional apartment management needs to ensure we have procedures in place to review, evaluate, and respond to each reasonable accommodation (or reasonable modification) request that is submitted by our residents.  Or you may really need to speak with a lawyer like me.

Just A Thought.

A case with difficult facts from Florida involving the Fair Housing Act (FHA) as well as other civil rights laws made the news earlier this week. An immigrant from India (who is Muslim) entered into an agreement to buy a home in an upscale island neighborhood near downtown Tampa. When the purchasers came to the house to do a final inspection and some cleaning, a neighbor walked toward the house and started yelling. The neighbor allegedly said things like “This sale will not take place!” and “You are not welcome here!” and “I will break all of your f-ing windows and I will burn you f-ing house down!” The neighbor also made insulting comments about Muslims.

The neighbor was just sentenced for violating the FHA and related civil rights statutes which protect threating or interfering with another person’s housing opportunities because of their race or religion. A part of the resolution includes a $30,000 restitution payment to cover the deposit the family lost when they canceled the closing on the house. In addition to the criminal matter, the neighbor is also facing a civil suit for violating the FHA and related anti-discrimination laws.

I know the facts here were extreme. No professional apartment management team would think of using this type of language when dealing with potential purchasers or renters of housing. But this case is a simple reminder that emotional outbursts can cause significant distress as we engage in our housing operations.

Just A Thought.

 

 

Last month the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) approved a settlement agreement concluding an assistance animal Fair Housing Act (FHA) discrimination case from Nevada. An applicant submitted a reasonable accommodation request (that was appropriately medically verified, according to HUD) to keep an assistance animal due to her disability. As reported in the complaint, the leasing agent told the applicant that the owner did not allow pets because the floors had recently been upgraded to hardwood. After being told animals were not allowed, the applicant did not further attempt to lease the unit.

As reported here many times, however, professional apartment management typically must waive “no pet” rules when residents and/or applicants make reasonable accommodation requests that are appropriately medically verified. While there are always two sides to every story, my suggestion is to train your leasing office employees so nobody can ever credibly claim that you forbid service or emotional support animals because of hardwood floors. Always ensure your team knows the difference between a pet and an assistance animal. Or you may need to speak with a lawyer like me.

The terms of the settlement involved a $6,000 payment to the applicant, a requirement for fair housing training, as well as the adoption of reasonable accommodation policies to ensure any future requests are appropriately (and timely) responded to.

Just A Thought.