Even though most private residential Associations are not subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), the Fair Housing Act (the “FHA”) still applies and protects owners who have service animals. In some cases, the Association has the right to ask the owner for documentation supporting the need for a service animal, but not always…and the case below illustrates how pressing for documentation when the Association is not entitled to it can end up being quite costly for the Association.
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Davis v. Echo Valley Condominium Association, No. 17-12475 (E.D. Mich. Nov. 7, 2018)

Summary

The Eastern District of Michigan court held that a smoking ban demanded by a disabled owner was an unreasonable accommodation for purposes of the Fair Housing Act since the measure was not approved by the owners, and the Association was powerless to impose a ban without an owner vote.

The Facts

Plaintiff owned a Unit in the Echo Valley Condominium Association (the “Association”). Plaintiff complained to the Association that her neighbors smoked tobacco. She alleged that she could regularly smell it and that it exacerbated her existing respiratory health conditions.

Plaintiff informed the Association about her medical issues and asked the Association to address the smoking by creating a rule that all smokers in the Association should be required to seal gaps around doors and windows to prevent smoke from escaping. The Association declined to enforce a rule because neither the Association documents nor state law prohibited people from smoking in their homes.
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A Board’s blatant mishandling of an emotional support animal request led to the owner not only having a Fair Housing claim against the Association for wrongful failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, but also a claim for third-party harassment when the Association failed to step in and stop other unit owners from blasting the owner publicly on a blog.

Facts.  In a 2017 case, an owner that lived in a no pets community applied to the Board requesting an emotional support dog, providing a doctor’s letter prescribing the dog. The Board didn’t want to deal with the request and kept putting it off, hoping it would go away. Meanwhile, a Board member told another owner about the emotional support animal request, and the owner, who was an active blogger and upset by the presence of a dog in their community, started blogging about the situation, naming the owner and poking fun at her need for an emotional support dog using cruel and chastising language.
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In Welsh v. McNeil, 162 A.3d 135 (2017) a board member and unit owner (“Board Member”) sued another unit owner (“Landlord Unit Owner”) for violation of the Association documents claiming that the Landlord Unit Owner violated the leasing provisions by allowing someone (the “Tenant”) to occupy the premises who was not on the lease.  The lease was only to an unincorporated entity, and did not name who would be occupying the premises.  Before suit was filed the Landlord Unit Owner and Tenant asked the Board to waive the bylaw provision as a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Administration (“FHA”) to afford recovering alcoholics an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a single family dwelling of their choice.
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A unit owner, who is also an attorney, was renting his unit to his mother and believed that the condominium association board, the association, the property manager and the association’s attorney didn’t like him because of his Russian nationality. His mother, who allegedly had asthma and could not tolerate smoking, was upset because her Armenian neighbor would smoke inside her own unit and on her limited common element patio and the smoke would seep through the mother’s open windows. The unit owner demanded that the association board prohibit smoking inside of all of the units. When the board refused, he brought a 200-paragraph lawsuit alleging seven various causes of action, including discrimination, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of various alleged laws.
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A unit owner claimed that she needed an emotional support animal because of a disability, and provided a doctor’s note to the condominium association supporting this need. The unit owner selected a dog as the emotional support animal, and as a reasonable accommodation the association agreed to allow the dog into a no-pet building.  The unit owner demanded the right to take the dog everywhere, including into the swimming pool, making various arguments and attaching various Fair Housing Act articles relating to the need to allow people with disabilities equal access to the property of an association. 
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Under the law in most states, and certainly in Wisconsin, the Board of your condominium association controls any changes to the exterior appearance.  This is generally based on a statute that can’t be changed even by the governing documents.  However, things are changing.  Across the country many laws are being passed that require the Board of Directors of various condominium associations to approve certain changes to the exterior.  This can range from artificial turf to solar panels.  In addition, the world is changing relative to emotional support animals, sexual harassment and security. 
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There are some new HUD (Housing and Urban Development) Rules that went into effect October 2016 which may have a significant impact on Condominium and Homeowners Associations, and although we very much dislike these new Rules for the reasons set forth below, it is important for Associations to be aware of these new liability traps.

The new HUD Rules state that there are two types of harassment (Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Environment) that are now recognized and identified by the FHA (Fair Housing Act).
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If your condominium association documents include restrictions on occupancy (how many people can reside in a unit), be aware of what the federal law states on the issue to avoid potentially costly lawsuits brought by disgruntled unit owners.

While it is legal for a condominium association to adopt and enforce occupancy policies, those rules (and enforcement of the rules) must be reasonable and in compliance with state laws and local ordinances. If they are not, the rules run the risk of being found discriminatory based on familial status under the federal Fair Housing Act. The act prohibits discrimination on the basis of (among other things) familial status, which means the presence of children in the family.
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