The ADA played a typically minor role in the recent election. Democrats made it clear they were for the disabled but did not propose specific new programs. Republicans barely mentioned the disabled except for a brief controversy involving Trump mocking a disabled reporter. With disability rights playing such a minor role in Republican politics one might think that Trump’s election means no change, but in fact a Trump presidency may lead to a significant narrowing of the ADA’s application and reduced federal enforcement action. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA FHA General, ADA FHA Litigation General, Apartments, Building Codes, FHA, Multi-Family Tags: Consent Decree, Construction, Department of Justice, DOJ, FHA
The Department of Justice announced in late July a settlement with a substantial multi-family developer in West Virginia that had managed over a decade or so to construct 23 apartment complexes that did not comply with the accessibility requirements of the Fair Housing Act (see the DOJ press release here). In addition to remediation costs, which appear to be substantial, the developer will pay $205,000 in damages and penalties and construct new accessible units. Like most FHA cases, it is a big deal.
One of my fellow bloggers has helpfully suggested that if the DOJ investigates a situation like this you need a lawyer “like me.” What developers “like you” really need is not to be investigated in the first place, and if investigated to not be liable. You can find a link to the consent decree in the DOJ press release, and the problems it lists are the same problems that appear over and over again in FHA lawsuits. Lawyers didn’t cause them, and lawyers really can’t prevent them. Developers, however, can. More
By richardhunt in ADA, ADA FHA General, ADA regulations, ADA rulemaking, DOJ Tags: Department of Justice, DOJ, FHA ADA litigation "statute of limitations" strategy DOJ "attorney general" enforcement, private litigants
This week two ADA writers I follow, Marc Dubin and William Goren, looked at the problem of telling just what the ADA requires. Both concluded that in some respect the only way to know was to look at the latest private settlements between the Department of Justice and various businesses it investigates. You can know the statute, you can know the regulations, you can read the various guidances, but if you don’t keep track of what the DOJ is doing when it settles its private investigations you really don’t know what to do in many cases. The National Association of the Deaf, an advocacy group, recently wrote on the requirement of closed captioning in audio and audiovisual presentations (nad.org). With a few exceptions governed by statutes other than the ADA the best the N.A.D. could say was that closed captioning “may” be required or that the situation is uncertain.
This uncertainty is great for lawyers and consultants. Like most folks in the ADA and FHA consulting business Marc, William and I follow the DOJ and HUD press releases that announce their settlements, and receive updates on their regulatory initiatives. For businesses, on the other hand, it stinks. Not only is a business required to constantly pay consultants to help it comply with the ADA, it will frequently be told by the consultant that the only answer comes from reading the tea leaves and guessing what the DOJ’s position will be when and if it finally publishes a definitive regulation. Even that guess comes with a warning: the DOJ’s position in a private settlement is not binding on private litigants or the courts, so doing what DOJ appears to want won’t help a business that is sued by a disabled individual.
This uncertainty comes in part because of a regulatory process that seems hopelessly bogged down. Web accessibility regulations have been in the making for years, but the issue is still being studied. The current 2010 Standards for accessibility were originally published in the 1990’s and parts were not in effect until 2013. Haste is never good when faced with complex problems of accessibility, but when the wheels of justice grind too slowly one has to ask whether there is a systemic problem.
More important, every time the Department of Justice delays the promulgation or implementation of a regulation it creates uncertainty and expense for business. Remember, the requirements of the ADA statute apply regardless of the existence of regulations, and when the DOJ does not act private litigants have free reign to argue that it means whatever appears in their interest. DOJ itself has the same freedom, for it can change its own policies for prosecution and settlement without any oversight by the courts.
Why the DOJ has decided to act through private settlements rather than regulation is an interesting subject for speculation, but there is little doubt that the only people who benefit are lawyers and consultants. The disabled suffer the delay in promulgation and implementation of regulations that may benefit them while businesses suffer the uncertainty and expense that come from never knowing quite how to spend their money on accessibility. Although it may be impossible given the bureaucratic love of delay found in most government agencies, reform should be on the agenda for both Congress and the Executive branches.
I was surprised last month to see a major national law firm suggest, in its ADA blog, that internet businesses are legally required by the ADA to create accessible websites, and need to consult a lawyer about that requirement. While it is undoubtedly true that creating an accessible web site is good public relations, it is uncertain whether it is required by the ADA. Here is a brief look at where things stand, and a recommendation about who you need to consult.
The courts will ultimately decide what the ADA requires in terms of internet access. Right now we have a very clear decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals holding that a web site is not a place of public accommodation and is therefore not subject to the ADA. Recent district court decisions in the Ninth Circuit follow this precedent, and the Ninth Circuit remains the highest federal court to address the issue. More
By richardhunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA FHA General, ADA FHA Litigation General, Landlord-tenant, Reasonable accommodation, Restaurants, Retail, Shopping Centers Tags: ada litigation, DOJ, Landlord-tenant, private lawsuits, real-estate, restaurants, retail
NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) litigation is common under the Fair Housing Act. An organization that serves recovering addicts or individuals with mental disabilities will try to locate in a neighborhood where deed restrictions or zoning prohibits group homes and find its efforts blocked by the city or homeowners association because the neighbors don’t want “undesirable” individuals living in the area. Commercial landlords subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act can face the same kind of pressure not to rent to tenants who serve the disabled. A landlord who succumbs to pressure from other tenants, or makes a leasing decision based on assumptions or stereotypes may find itself on the losing end of a lawsuit or a DOJ investigation.
Special Educ. Services v. Rreef Performance Partnership-I,L.P, 1995 WL 745964 (N.D. Ill. 1995) perfectly illustrates a typical situation. The plaintiff (“SES”) operated a school and vocational education facility for developmentally disabled children. At the expiration of its lease the defendant landlord refused to renew. It claimed to have legitimate business reasons, but they were all tied in one way or another to the disabilities of the children or their needs. It complained, for example, that the busses transporting the children blocked parking places, that the children generated excessive complaints about noise or playing games in the parking lot, and, perhaps most telling, that the location was not “an appropriate place” for for children. What the plaintiff did not do was make any effort to accommodate the cause of the problems, or even to address them with SES until it refused to renew the lease. The district court had little difficulty finding that SES would probably prevail in its lawsuit and granted an injunction against eviction.
The DOJ’s involvement in this kind of commercial leasing can be found in its handling of a case by Sinergia, a non-profit that operated an facility to help the mentally disabled. When a landlord refused to rent to it because other tenants complained the DOJ stepped in. The result was a consent decree that included a $75,000 payment to Sinergia and a court order compelling the landlord to comply with the ADA.
What can a landlord do when faced with the tug-of-war between concerns about other tenants and customers and the requirements of the ADA? There are four key things to remember:
- First, the landlord must understand that tenants who serve those with disabilities must be given special treatment. In the language of the statute, they must be given reasonable accommodations. For an ordinary tenant, violations of lease requirments or disruptive behavior by the tenant’s customers might well justify a refusal to renew or, if serious enough, a reason to evict. If those same concerns are the related to disabilities of the tenant’s customers the landlord cannot rely on its right to refuse to renew. Instead the landlord must engage in a conversation with the tenant in which the landlord seeks solutions; otherwise non-renewal or eviction are likely to be seen as discrimination.
- Second, the landlord must document its efforts to accommodate tenant problems related to disability. The landlord in the SES case had legitimate concerns about SES as a tenant, but it did nothing to express those concerns until it decided not to renew the lease. This kind of passive-aggressive behavior will not be accepted for tenants protected by the ADA. The landlord must document its efforts to deal with tenant problems so that it is clear when the inevitable lawsuit is filed that the landlord’s concerns were not merely a pretext for disability discrimination.
- Third, when considering a new lease the landlord needs to carefully consider whether its concerns are based on stereotypes about those with disabilities. A landlord may believe that recovering addicts are more likely engage in criminal conduct than ordinary customers, but if it refuses to lease to an addiction recovery organization it must be prepared to prove in court that this is a fact. It cannot rely on “common knowledge” about the matter.
- Finally, the landlord considering a new tenant must also consider what reasonable solutions it might find to any real problems it may face. If the tenant uses busses, as was the case in SES, the landlord must make an effort to deal constructively with the parking problem rather than merely refusing to sign a new lease or renew an old one. Again, dialogue with the prospective tenant is critical, and must be focused on finding solutions rather than using problems as an excuse not to sign a lease.
At the end of the day the ADA’s requirements for dealing with tenants who serve the disabled are not much different than the best practices in commercial leasing; that is, work with tenants to solve problems. The difference is that refusing to engage in constructive dialogue with a tenant protected by the ADA can result in a lawsuit, an investigation by the Department of Justice, and possibly a steep fine as well as money spent on lawyers. For ordinary tenants being reasonable is optional; for ADA tenants it is the law.