HOA violates the Fair Housing Act by denying a service animal in the clubhouse

In Sanzaro v Ardiente Homeowners Association, et. al., Docket No. 2:11-CV0-1143-RFB-CWH, 2019 WL 1049380 (D Nev, March 5, 2019), a federal court imposed a judgment of $350,000 in compensatory damages, $285,000 in punitive damages and awarded the plaintiffs attorney’s fees and costs against their homeowners association.  Based upon the facts of the case, the court determined that the homeowners association violated the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. 3601, et seq., by denying the plaintiffs the ability to bring a service animal into the clubhouse on three different occasions and subsequently harassing them after denying their request for a reasonable accommodation.

Facts

Ardiente is a gated neighborhood in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Ardiente is not open to the public and is governed by the Ardiente Homeowners Association. It has common areas, including a clubhouse, which has restricted access, and is monitored by a property management company.  Plaintiffs, Deborah and Michael Sanzaro, were members of the association.  Mrs. Sanzaro become disabled in 2004 and her disability permanently impeded her ability to walk without assistance.  Mrs. Sanzaro required a walker and a trained service animal.  The service dog, a chihuahua named Angel, would obtain Mrs. Sanzaro’s walker and keys if these items were out of her reach.

Mrs. Sanzaro attempted to enter the clubhouse with her service dog and walker on at least three separate occasions.  The management company asked Mrs. Sanzaro to leave as the Association did not allow pets in the clubhouse and she did not have documentation on her to demonstrate that Angel was a service animal.  Security was called and Mrs. Sanzaro left the clubhouse.  Mrs. Sanzaro was denied access to the clubhouse on several other occasions.  The association then began fining her and the Sanzaros later received various harassing letters from other members of the community as a result of the Association’s conduct, the board’s conduct and the management company’s conduct.  The Sanzaros were later forced to file for bankruptcy as a result of the liens that were placed on their unit from the fines.  The Sanzaros then filed claims for violation the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Federal Fair Housing Act against the developer, the homeowners association, individual board members, the management company and individual property managers.

Americans with Disabilities Act

After a bench trial, the court held that the Ardiente Homeowners Association did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The court held that, “To prevail on a Title III discrimination claim, the plaintiff must show that (1) she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) the defendant is a private entity that owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation; and (3) the plaintiff was denied public accommodations by the defendant because of her disability.” In the context of ADA discrimination claims pertaining to service animals, discrimination is defined in part as “a failure to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities ….” 42 U.S.C. 12182(b)(2)(A)(ii) (2009).  While the court found that Mrs. Sanzaro was “disabled” within the meaning of the ADA, it determined that the private clubhouse was not a place of public accommodation under the ADA as the “general public did not have unrestricted, general or even limited access to the clubhouse.”  Accordingly, the court did not find a violation of the ADA.

Fair Housing Act

The Sanzaros advanced two different theories of liability under the Federal Fair Housing Act.  First, Mrs. Sanzaro argued that she was discriminated against as a result of their disability.  In order to prevail on such a claim, the court held that the following must be demonstrated:

(1) Mrs. Sanzaro is a member of a protected class; (2) Mrs. Sanzaro applied for and was qualified for use of the clubhouse with Angel; (3) Mrs. Sanzaro was denied use of the clubhouse with Angel; and (4) Defendants allowed similarly situated parties to use the clubhouse. See Sanghvi v City of Claremont, 328 F3d 532, 536 (9th Cir 2003) (citing Gamble, 104 F3d at 305). Once Plaintiffs have established the prima facie case, the burden shifts to Defendants to “to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action.” Gamble, 104 F3d at 305. Finally, Plaintiffs must show by a preponderance of evidence that Defendants’ proffered reason is pretextual.

Second, the Sanzaros argued that the Fair Housing Act was violated as a reasonable accommodation was not provided for Mrs. Sanzaro’s disability.  The court stated:

Regarding reasonable accommodation claims under the FHA, unlawful discrimination includes a housing provider’s “refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a handicapped] person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” 42 U.S.C. 3604(f)(3)(B) (2009). A plaintiff must prove five elements to prevail on an FHA reasonable accommodation claim under 3604(f)(3)(B): “(1) that the plaintiff or his associate is handicapped within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 3602(h); (2) that the defendant knew or should reasonably be expected to know of the handicap; (3) that accommodation of the handicap may be necessary to afford the handicapped person an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling; (4) that the accommodation is reasonable; and (5) that defendant refused to make the requested accommodation.” Dubois v Ass’n of Apartment Owners of 2987 Kalakaua, 453 F.3d 1175, 1179 (9th Cir 2006) (citations omitted), cert. denied, 549 US 1216, 127 S Ct 1267, 167 L Ed 2d 92 (2007).

In ruling on these claims, the court held that the defendants were reasonably expected to know of Mrs. Sanzaro’s disability as her handicap required the use of a walker and was visible.  The court found that Mrs. Sanzaro was unable to use and enjoy the clubhouse without a reasonable accommodation and that access to the clubhouse was necessary for the Sanzaros’ enjoyment of their home.  Specifically, the court determined that, “the clubhouse provided various programming and a community meeting place for enjoyment by all homeowners in the community…” and that “the clubhouse was necessary for the enjoyment of the Sanzaros’ home because it contained the office for the community.” 

The court further determined that allowing a service animal in the clubhouse constituted a reasonable accommodation given Mrs. Sanzaro’s limited mobility.  The court relied on HUD rules and stated as follows:

Pursuant to the 2008 Final Rule on public housing regulations, a housing provider may verify that a disability exists, and inquire as to the need for accommodation such as a service animal, if neither the disability nor the need is “readily apparent.” Preamble to Final Rule, Pet Ownership for the Elderly and Persons With Disabilities, 73 Fed. Reg. 63,833, 63,835 (Oct. 27, 2008). HUD further clarified that, so long as a person with a disability demonstrates a nexus between the disability and the service the animal provides, specialized training is not required, as “[s]ome animals perform tasks that require training, and others provide assistance that does not require training.”

The court held that the defendants knew that the service animal did not pose a risk or threat of harm to anyone in the clubhouse or in the community.  The court further determined that there was a nexus between Mrs. Sanzaro’s disability and the services performed by her service animal.  The court also noted that the defendants provided no argument as to why the accommodation would have been unreasonable as the evidence demonstrated that the dog was small, quiet and not disruptive in the clubhouse.  

Damages

In determining damages under the Fair Housing Act, the court stated that:

….a plaintiff may seek actual and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief, if the court finds evidence of a discriminatory housing practice. 42 U.S.C. 3613(c)(1)…..To obtain punitive damages under the FHA, a plaintiff must show that defendants acted with reckless indifference…..Reckless indifference is found where a defendant, at minimum, “discriminate[s] in the face of a perceived risk that its actions will violate federal law” but does not require that defendant “engage in conduct with some independent, egregious quality” to be subject to punitive damages.

The court held that Plaintiffs established non-economic damages in the amount of $350,000 related to pain and suffering, humiliation, and emotional distress due to being driven out of their home, facing death threats and harassment from community members, being undermined publicly and privately by the board of directors, having to file bankruptcy, and being unable to use and enjoy the  clubhouse for several years.

The court also awarded punitive damages in amount of $285,000 against the defendants as it found that they acted “acted with reckless indifference as to the rights of disabled individuals seeking reasonable accommodations.”  The specific conduct that resulted in an award of punitive damages was as follows:

(1) continuing to, in a harassing and malicious manner, request documentation about Mrs. Sanzaro’s need for Angel’s assistance even after sufficient documentation was provided to them regarding Mrs. Sanzaro’s disability and the ways in which Angel assisted her; (2) actively and wantonly preventing the Sanzaros from using the clubhouse once that documentation was provided; (3) sending or directing to be sent communications on behalf of the Board that portrayed the Sanzaros as litigious and untruthful and knowing that such communications about the Sanzaros would contribute to a hostile, threatening and intimidating living environment; and (4) failing to discourage Ardiente residents from harassing and threatening the Sanzaros at open meetings and through anonymous letters. The Court further finds that these Defendants acted with personal animus toward the Sanzaros, which fueled the antagonism among the community.

Finally, the court awarded attorney’s fees and costs to the Plaintiffs as the prevailing party in a FHA action.  See 42 U.S.C. 3613(c)(2).

Conclusion

This case provides some important lessons from community association board members and management companies.  Specifically, there are potentially very harsh consequences for violations of the Fair Housing Act.  Accordingly, when faced with requests for reasonable accommodations by a disabled owner, it is wise to consult with the association’s attorney.  We also recommend that community associations be proactive and adopt a formal policy that outlines how requests for reasonable accommodations will be handled. The key takeaways from this case are as follows:

  1. Generally speaking, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) does not apply to common areas in condominiums and subdivisions if these areas are limited to private use and not open to the public.
  2. Requests for reasonable accommodations under the Fair Housing Act can be made orally and in an informal manner.  A formal written request for a reasonable accommodation related to a disability is not necessary.
  3. Reasonable accommodations not only need to be made for the use of an owner’s home, but also must be made for use and enjoyment of the common areas.
  4. Generally speaking, trained service animals will constitute a reasonable accommodation for owners that have disabilities that impair their mobility.
  5. Take all requests for disability related accommodations seriously and treat the requester in a respectful manner.  In this case, the board members and management company greatly exacerbated the damages by attempting to publicly humiliate the plaintiffs and encouraging other members of the community to do the same.

Kevin Hirzel is the Managing Member of Hirzel Law, PLC and concentrates his practice on commercial litigation, community association law, condominium law, Fair Housing Act compliance, homeowners association and real estate law. Mr. Hirzel is a fellow in the College of Community Association Lawyers, a prestigious designation given to less than 175 attorneys in the country. He has been a Michigan Super Lawyer’s Rising Star in Real Estate Law from 2013-2019, an award given to only 2.5% of the attorneys in Michigan each year. Mr. Hirzel has been named a Leading Lawyer in Condominium & HOA law by Leading Lawyers Magazine in 2018 and 2019, an award given to less than 5% of the attorneys in Michigan each year. He represents community associations, condominium associations, cooperatives, homeowners associations, property owners and property managers throughout Michigan. He may be reached at (248) 478-1800 or kevin@hirzellaw.com.