By Laurie S. Poole, Esq. (originally published in Summer 2001)

Allegations that a homeowners association and its management company violated the Federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) by condoning and participating in harassment towards a disabled resident was the subject of a recent Federal court decision in Illinois.

In Scialabba v. Sierra Blanca Condominium Number One Association, the Scialabbas were the owners of a condominium within the Sierra Blanca Association. The Scialabbas moved into the condominium in 1976. Eight years later, in 1984, the Scialabbas’ son, Michael, sustained severe injuries in a car accident. Michael was left with permanent physical, mental and emotional disabilities. After the accident, Michael became the subject of taunting, teasing and other forms of harassment from the other residents within the Association. In particular, Michael received many instances of this abuse at the Association’s swimming pool.

The Scialabbas complained to the Association’s board, as well as its management company, about the harassment and requested that the Association take steps to accommodate Michael’s disabilities. Specifically, the Scialabbas requested that the Association alert the pool lifeguards about Michael’s disabilities and how to handle the situation. Instead of accommodating the Scialabbas, in response, the Association limited Michael’s access to the pool.

As if the Association’s behavior was not bad enough, there were allegations that the Association’s board president, at a board meeting, discussed trying to “get rid of” the Scialabbas and encouraged other members to join in that effort. Shortly after this meeting, the Association recorded several liens against the Scialabbas’ property, totaling $4,500 for costs and expenses the Association had incurred, and expected to incur, for Michael’s alleged violations of the governing documents. The Association also filed lawsuits in conjunction with these liens. Eventually the lawsuits were dismissed, but only after considerable expense and emotional distress incurred by the Scialabbas.

After unsuccessfully attempting to negotiate a reasonable accommodation with the Association for Michael’s disabilities, the Scialabbas moved out of their condominium. They then filed a lawsuit in the Illinois Federal Court claiming that the Association and its management company had violated numerous elements of the Federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”). The alleged violations included discrimination in the use of the common facilities, creating and ratifying a hostile living environment, failing to reasonably accommodate a person with disabilities, and breach of fiduciary duty.

The FHA prohibits discrimination against any person in the “terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such dwelling because of a handicap.” 42 United States Code Section 3604(f)(2). According to the FHA, discrimination includes a 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 United States Code Section 3604(f)(3)

The Association attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed on several grounds, one of which was that the Scialabbas’ complaint failed to sufficiently state a case against the Association. On most of the counts, the Illinois District Court denied the Association’s motion and found that the complaint did allege a viable action. In so ruling, the Court determined that many of the Association’s alleged actions were discriminatory against Michael and unfairly restricted the Scialabbas’ use of the common areas in violation of the FHA. The Court characterized the Association’s action in recording liens and filing lawsuits against the Scialabbas as coercive and intimidating. Moreover, the Association’s actions in ratifying the discriminatory behavior and attempting to force the Scialabbas to move out of the complex created a hostile living environment in violation of the FHA and the Association’s governing documents, which supported the claim of breach of fiduciary duty.

The Court dismissed the claims of breach of fiduciary duty against the Association’s property management company stating that the management company did not have a contractual relationship with the homeowners which would support a claim for breach of fiduciary duty. Also, the Court dismissed the Scialabbas’ claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, because the claims had not been brought within the time frame specified by the applicable statute of limitations.

It is important to note that this case only concerned the wording of the Scialabbas’ complaint against the Association. To win the case, the allegations raised in the lawsuit will still have to be proven by the Scialabbas in court.

That being said, it is hard to imagine a scenario where a homeowners association would apparently be insensitive to one of its members’ personal disabilities. Notwithstanding the fact that the FHA mandates reasonable accommodations for handicapped persons, if any owners within an association ask for “reasonable accommodations” for a disability, the association should undertake such accommodations after seeking guidance from legal counsel. While Associations are not required to make “every” accommodation requested, some accommodations are much less expensive than the legal bills, bad publicity and lowering of property values associated with taking the actions which the Sierra Blanca Association and its board allegedly took in this case.