Last week we wrote generally about the impact of fair housing laws on holiday decorations and displays and the challenging balancing act that management must undertake when considering what, if any, holiday displays they will permit in their communities. A recent judgment from the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho demonstrates just what can happen if management (or a homeowners’ association) fails to address issues that members of the community might have with their neighborhood’s aspiring heir to the mantle of Clark Griswold. As the Homeowners Association learned, nothing quite puts a damper on the holidays like having a $75,000 judgment entered against you over some Christmas lights.

The matter had its genesis in late 2014, when the plaintiffs held a religious based program in a home that they were renting at the time, ostensibly for the purpose of spreading a religious message and raising money for charity. Shortly thereafter and allegedly with the specific intent of purchasing a home that would be ideal for this Christmas program, the family made an offer on a home in the community governed by the Association. The family promptly contacted the Association and informed the Association’s President of their intent to host an annual event for five days each holiday season. The event, of course, would be centered on their home, which would be festooned with approximately 200,000 lights, and would also feature a live nativity, camel and all, live music, hot chocolate, photos with Santa, and portable restrooms.

Unsurprisingly, the Association balked and did not take our fair housing laws, which forbid discrimination on the basis of religion, into account. Now, wait, you might say, nowhere in any Christian religious text is there any mention of Christmas lights, live nativity scenes, or having your picture taken with a man dressed as a modern amalgamation of St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, and the Norse god Odin first dreamt up and popularized in the early 1900s. How on earth could a homeowners’ association refusing to allow such a garish display constitute religious discrimination under fair housing laws? The answer is simple: the Association said exactly the wrong things in its letter refusing the family’s request.

Initially, the Association’s refusal cited three sections of its governing documents that prohibited the proposed display and program: (1) the property could only be used for single family residential purposes; (2) the Association’s documents prohibited nuisances, including speakers, bells, whistles, and other sound emitting devices; and (3) the Association’s documents require lighting to be restrained in design and to avoid excessive brightness. Whether the Association was right or wrong, it was correct to rely on its governing documents, which were presumably drafted and implemented in a religiously neutral manner. The Association next raised more practical concerns, all of which are valid, including concerns that the community’s elderly population would be put at risk if the festival’s traffic and parking impeded first responders from accessing the neighborhood during an emergency.

Had the Association stopped there, they would have put themselves in a good position in the event that the homeowner (a lawyer who ultimately ended up representing himself pro se), had ever sued. As you might guess, though, the Association did not stop there, and went on to write:

And finally, I am somewhat hesitant in bringing up the fact that some of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith and I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up.

By specifically bringing religion into it, the Association handed the family a fair housing case on a silver platter. The judge, in fact, specifically refused to grant the Association’s motion for summary judgment because of that portion of the letter. At the end of the day, after nearly two years of litigation, a federal jury found in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding them $60,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages. And it could have been worse. Had the plaintiffs not proceeded pro se, the Association could easily have been forced to pay double that amount in attorneys’ fees.

Just A Thought.

Article by Christian Moffitt.