My recent blog post discussing if terminating a lease early could be considered a reasonable accommodation sparked a few comments. On the one hand, as I wrote, it does not seem logical to permit a resident to break a lease as an accommodation when the whole purpose of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) is to find and maintain housing for all. To phrase it another way, the reason behind the FHA is to get people into homes -- not to permit residents to leave.
Nevertheless, a number of court decisions and other guidance makes clear that there are circumstances under which breaking a lease can indeed be considered a reasonable accommodation for a disability. To be sure, it is a fact intensive inquiry into demonstrating how breaking the lease will assist the person with a disability.
Because we here at the Fair Housing Defense blog like to show the other side of the story, a case with a different, but related, fact patten was Congdon v. Strine, 854 F. Supp. 355 (E.D. Pa. 1994). There, a resident who began using a wheelchair years after she lived in a fourth floor apartment sued her landlord for various violations of the FHA. The tenant rented on a month to month basis and, as such, early termination of a lease was not an issue. The tenant alleged that the landlord kept the elevator in a state of disrepair and that, as a result, she was frequently trapped inside her apartment. Significantly, the landlord had offered the resident a ground floor apartment as well as an apartment in another building he owned, but the tenant declined those offers.
Next, the resident claimed that the landlord's failure to maintain the elevator: (1) denied a dwelling or made it "unavailable" to her in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(1); (2) discriminated in the terms and conditions of rental in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(2) because of the disparate impact on tenants with disabilities; and (3) constituted a failure to make reasonable accommodations in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3). The court rejected the first and third claims because the landlord had offered the tenant other accessible apartments. The court rejected the second claim based on a balancing test involving many factors, but the driving factor appeared to be that the tenant was offered other effective accommodations.
The lessons learned from Congdon are that management must always respond to reasonable accommodation (or reasonable modification) requests and that if management offers a resident an accessible apartment that is not to the tenant's liking, management may well have discharged its duty to accommodate. The resident may not be able to successfully pursue a claim under the FHA unless he or she can show that the offered accommodation was not effective.
Just a Thought.