Monday, June 10, 2013

3rd Circuit: Wheelchair-Bound Homeowner's Use Of ATV On HOA's Public Streets Not A 'Reasonable Accomodation' Under Fair Housing Act Where Benefit To Homeowner "Is Outweighed Substantially By The Potential Danger That [Its] Use Could Cause" To Community's Residents

From a recent Opinion Summary:

  • Plaintiffs and their son appealed the district court's summary judgment holding that they were not entitled under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, 42 U.S.C. 3601-3631, to an accommodation and a modification that they requested from the HOA.(1)

    Plaintiffs had requested a modification to add a ramp leading to the front door of their home(2) for use by their son, who required the use of a wheelchair. Plaintiffs also requested an accommodation to an HOA policy prohibiting the use of certain types of vehicles to allow the son to use an ATV within the community.(3)

    The court vacated the district court's holding on the merits of the modification request for the wheelchair access ramp because that claim was not ripe; affirmed the district court's holding with respect to the accommodation request for permission to use an ATV because that request was not "reasonable" within the meaning of the Act;(4) and affirmed the district court's denial of defendants' request for attorneys' fees and costs.
Source: Opinion Summary: Scoggins v. Lee's Crossing Homeowners Assoc.

For the ruling, see Scoggins v. Lee's Crossing Homeowners Assoc., No. 11-2202, No. 11-2373 (4th Cir. May 17, 2013).

(1) The Fair Housing Legal Clinic of The John Marshall Law School, Chicago Illinois, provided support in preparing the briefs for the homeowners in this case. The Clinic, a Qualified Fair Housing Organization, was established and staffed with full-time attorneys to train and educate law students how to represent victims of housing discrimination.

(2) 'Home' for the Scoggins is "a ten-acre lot [purchased] in 2002 in Lee's Crossing, a subdivision in Loudoun County, Virginia, where they built a home in which they have resided for several years."

The public streets within the Lee's Crossing subdivision are described as "unpaved, making it difficult for Jacob [plaintiff's partially-paralyzed son] to travel within the community using either his manual or power wheelchair."

(3) The restrictive covenants contain rules governing activities conducted on the common grounds of Lee's Crossing. These rules include a policy prohibiting the use of off-road vehicles such as ATVs on the common driveways and roads of the community.

(4) Part of the court's analysis and ruling on this specific point follows ('Jacob' is the plaintiff's partially-paralyzed son who requires the use of a wheelchair; his right to operate an ATV on the family's own 10-acre property is not at issue here):
  • Without question, the plaintiffs established that use of an ATV would make it easier for Jacob to travel on the unpaved roads of Lee's Crossing, and that it would be impractical for him to use his power wheelchair for this purpose because of the potential damage to the wheelchair's electronic components. Accordingly, the plaintiffs established that the use of an ATV would afford Jacob the benefit of easier transportation within the community.

    Nevertheless, the present record shows that such benefit to Jacob is outweighed substantially by the potential danger that use of the ATV could cause to the residents of the community. The defendants produced overwhelming evidence showing that the use of an ATV as a general matter within Lee's Crossing, and Jacob's use of such a vehicle in particular, present a significant threat to Jacob's own safety as well as to the safety of the other residents of the community.

    Among other items, the defendants included in the record a copy of the owner's manual (the manual) for the ATV model that Jacob sought to operate.

    The manual emphasizes that the use of the ATV is "FOR OFF-ROAD USE ONLY," and that the ATV does not conform to federal motor vehicle safety standards. The manual contains the additional warning that "the ATV does not have turn signals and other features required for use on public roads." Separately, the manual again states that "[y]ou should never ride your ATV on public streets, roads or highways, even if they are not paved. Drivers of street vehicles may have difficulty seeing and avoiding you, which could lead to a collision." (Emphasis added.)

    The evidence further showed that drivers traveling the roads of Lee's Crossing are permitted to operate their vehicles at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, in excess of the speed limits in effect on many public roads. Thus, it is of particular note that the Code of Virginia prohibits, as a general matter, the operation of any all-terrain vehicle "[o]n any public highway, or other public property." Va. Code § 46.2-915.1.

    We also observe that the defendants' expert witness, Gary E. Kilpatrick, a certified professional engineer with experience in the operation of ATVs, submitted a report describing the dangers inherent in operating an ATV in an area such as Lee's Crossing. In his report, Kilpatrick stated that "ATVs are designed specifically for operation on off-road dirt terrain," and that the tires of an ATV "do not handle well on hard packed dirt roads, graveled roads and hard surfaced paved roads." Kilpatrick further opined that ATVs are difficult for drivers of other vehicles to see and are not equipped with headlights, brake lights, or other devices to make them visible to other drivers on the road.

    In addition to this evidence concerning the general dangers of operating an ATV within Lee's Crossing, the defendants produced evidence showing the increased danger posed in ATV use by persons who have physical impairments. In his report, Kilpatrick stated that riding an ATV is physically demanding, and that, to operate an ATV safely, a rider must "have full use of his entire body, especially his hands, arms, torso and legs." Kilpatrick, who examined Jacob's medical reports, opined that the physical limitations caused by Jacob's partial paralysis render his use of an ATV very dangerous, and that the medication he takes to control spasms in his lower extremities poses additional dangers. Accordingly, Kilpatrick concluded that "because of the hazards associated with riding ATVs, the surrounding terrain and his physical limitations, [Jacob] is and will be a danger to himself, other drivers, [and] pedestrians" if he were allowed to operate an ATV within Lee's Crossing.

    The plaintiffs have not refuted the defendants' evidence that any operation of an ATV for other than off-road uses is inherently dangerous.[11] Instead, the plaintiffs challenge Kilpatrick's conclusion that Jacob's physical limitations make his use of an ATV exceptionally dangerous. The plaintiffs rely primarily on Jacob's own testimony, in which he stated that he could operate an ATV safely, and on a video recording of Jacob operating an ATV on the plaintiffs' property without incident.[12]

    Having considered this evidence alongside the defendants' evidence, we conclude that the plaintiffs have not presented facts sufficient to create an issue for trial whether Jacob could operate an ATV within Lee's Crossing without creating a danger to the residents of the community. Cf. Williams v. Giant Food Inc., 370 F.3d 423, 433 (4th Cir. 2004) (plaintiff's subjective belief about her abilities, absent sufficient objective corroboration, cannot defeat summary judgment).

    In light of this conclusion, we need not reach the other elements of the ATV request claim, including whether the request would be "necessary" to afford Jacob an equal opportunity to enjoy the Lee's Crossing community.[13]

    Accordingly, we affirm the district court's award of summary judgment in the defendants' favor on the ATV request claim, because the plaintiffs failed to establish that the proposed accommodation is "reasonable," within the meaning of the FHAA. See Bryant Woods, 124 F.3d at 604 (directing courts to consider the benefits of the proposed accommodation against the extent to which the legitimate purposes and effects of the regulation would be undermined by the accommodation).

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