Court Decision Affirms “Necessity Standard” for Reasonable Accommodations

In Carter v. Murray, 2021, WL 4192055, CIVIL ACTION NO 21-3289 (E.D. PA, September 14, 2021), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that a tenant was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation of permanent relocation to a unit that was free of carpet fumes and tobacco smoke since the landlord had offered a temporary relocation while repairs were made to remove the offending carpet from the unit. The landlord had also promised to adopt a smoke-free policy for the apartment complex.

The suit was brought by Reginald Carter, a resident at Venango House, an apartment building in Philadelphia.  Prior to moving in in August 2018, Carter discovered that the apartment was newly carpeted and painted. Because of his lung disease, he asked management to remove the carpet. He was told this could not be done but was offered an uncarpeted apartment in the building.  He accepted the apartment, but because the linoleum floors and adhesives were also releasing toxins, he did not move in until October to allow the paint to off-gas. He was also unhappy with dust and parts of an unfinished wall.

On May 15, 2019, Carter wrote a letter to the manager, Donna Murray, expressing concerns about the smoking of a fellow resident who smoked and used deodorizers to mask the smell. He requested to be moved out of his unit to allow for repainting and floor replacement.  On June 4, 2019, a tenants’ council meeting was held to address Carter’s issues. Carter’s lung problems were not brought up at the meeting, but the Council did ask the manager if smoking was going to be prohibited.

On December 17, 2019, Carter wrote another letter to Murray in which he stated that he would not allow a contractor to paint his door because of COPD lung disease. He asked that the painting be put on hold until such time as tenants with lung disease could seek exemptions from having their doors painted. The painting was stopped, but no one at the property was asked if they wanted an exemption from the painting of the doors.

On January 28, 2020, Carter alleged that an environmental hazard was caused by the improper removal of carpet adhesive in the hallways. He alleged that he was hospitalized twice in 2020 because he “could not walk a block without getting chest, neck, and face pains.” He claimed that the “stress of living at the Venango House was a major contributing factor,” and that cigar and cigarette smoke from other tenants intensified his breathing problems.

In January 2021, Carter emailed Murray and a representative of the management company (Winn Companies) that the smell of paint and new carpeting made his symptoms worse. He complained in February 2021 of cigar smell in his apartment and claimed that due to the racial makeup of the tenancy at Venango House and the fact that management failed to provide 24-hour security and had no central air in the hallways, what was occurring amounted to “murder and institutional racism.”

On February 22, 2021, Andrew Lund, the Office Manager and Regional Vice-President of the management company, contacted Carter by email about current issues. Carter replied that the smoking issues remained and that he needed permanent relocation instead of a temporary stay at a hotel while repairs were conducted. He alleged that his relocation request was ignored from May 15, 2019 to March of 2021.

Carter filed a claim against Lund, Murray and others, alleging constitutional claims for violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, claims under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and state law claims. He requested an order requiring the Winn Companies to relocate him to a place of his choosing at Winn’s expense, to remove certain individuals from the tenant council, and to reinstate him as council president. He also sought an order directing the Winn Companies to evict a member of the tenant council with whom Carter had a dispute and to immediately disallow smoking at Venango House

The Court dismissed all the constitutional claims. The court also ruled that Carter pleaded no plausible FHA claim for disability. The FHA protects against discrimination based on disability. To state a reasonable accommodation discrimination claim, the plaintiff must plead facts showing (1)accommodations are necessary to afford him equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling; and (2) the defendant refused to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services. In support of this, the Court cited Vorcheimer v. Philadelphia Owners Association, (a case that those who have taken my fair housing training in 2021 may be familiar with). As stated in Vorcheimer, the element of necessity “requires that an accommodation be essential, not just preferable.” A plaintiff must “establish a nexus between the accommodations that he or she is requesting and their necessity for providing handicapped individuals an ‘equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing.”

The court went on to explain that even if Carter’s medical conditions qualified as a disability under the FHA, it did not provide facts alleging the statutory elements of a failure to accommodate claim. In fact, the claim stated that Murray and Lund attempted to resolve Carter’s complaints by meeting with Carter and offering relocation to an uncarpeted apartment, and the opportunity to move into a hotel while his floors were refinished. Moreover, Murray and Lund sent Carter an email on March 5, 2021, stating that Venango House would “work toward implementing a smoke-free policy.”  Thus,  the defendants addressed his requests and Carter provided no facts demonstrating a failure to accommodate. For this reason, the court found Carter’s disability discrimination claim was not plausible and was dismissed without prejudice. This means that if Carter can address the weaknesses in his case, he may bring it forward again.

This case provides another example of fair housing claims relating to reasonable accommodation requests being dismissed when landlords make legitimate offers to meet the requirements relating to the disability – even if the offers do not match the specific demands of the plaintiff.