Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., v. Rommel Builder, Inc.: Developers and Builder Violated FHAA

The United States District Court for Maryland considered whether condominium complex’s owners and developers had violated both the ADA and FHAA.

Kevin Beverly, a handicapped individual, sued multiple parties for alleged violations of the Fair Housing Amendments Act (“FHAA”) and American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). A nonprofit corporation that promotes equal housing opportunities and United States Department of Justice joined Mr. Beverly in his lawsuit (collectively, the “Plaintiffs”). All of the groups named in the lawsuit were involved in some way with the Lions Gate condominium development. These groups were: the developers, LOB, Inc., and John Rommel (“Developers”); the builder, Rommel Builder, Inc. (“Builder”); and the condominium association, Lions Gate Garden Condominium, Inc. (“Association”).

The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate against people with disabilities. The purpose of the law is to assure equal access and services to disabled individuals. The FHAA makes it unlawful to “discriminate in the sale or rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any buyer or renter because of a handicap” of the buyer or renter.

The alleged ADA violations centered on the use of a model home as a sales office for the complex. The Plaintiffs alleged that the ADA had been violated because the sales office was a place of public accommodation. The ADA requires that a place of public accomodation must be “readily accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.” The Developers argued that the ADA did not apply to model homes. The court rejected the Developers’ argument, finding that while in general model homes are not subject to ADA rules for places of public accommodation, if a model home is used as a sales office, then it is a place of public accommodation within the meaning of the ADA. As there was a factual dispute as to how the model home was used, the court declined to further rule for either party on this issue.

The Plaintiffs also argued that the Builder and Developers violated the FHAA by failing to incorporate “adaptive design” features into the complex. They responded that this statutory requirement simply meant that a tenant or owner could request certain modifications, and the FHAA did not mandate that these modifications had to be included in every unit. The court disagreed with the Builder and Developers, finding instead that the legislative history of the FHAA demonstrated that Congress used the term “adaptive design” because it is a term of art within the construction industry with a definite meaning. Congress intended the term to refer to the basic features of adaptability within the individual units. These feature include: accessible routes into and through the dwelling, electric switches in accessible locations, reinforcement of bathroom walls to allow for installation of grab bars, and kitchens and bathrooms usable by someone in a wheelchair. The court found that the Plaintiffs had demonstrated that three of the four requirements were not meet by the Developers and Builder, and so the court ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs on these claims. The only remaining allegation was whether the bathroom walls could have grab bars installed.

Next, the court considered whether the change of condominium ownership affected the FHAA violations alleged by the Plaintiffs. The Developers claimed that they could not be sued under the FHAA since they no longer owned the property, as ownership had been transferred to private parties. The court stated that it wasn’t important who owned the property but whether violations were occurring. Since there were factual disputes about who owned the property at various times, the court declined to rule on this issue.

The court also considered whether the Association should be dismissed as a party from this lawsuit, since the Plaintiffs were not seeking any damages from it. The Plaintiffs argued that the Association should remain in the lawsuit because it will be necessary to effectuate any relief that the court orders the Developer and/or Builder to perform on the property. The Association argued that its continued presence in the lawsuit inhibited the ability to sell units. The court rejected the Association’s arguments, finding that the Association presence was necessary if the Plaintiffs are entitled to receive the relief that they are seeking.

The final argument considered by the court was whether the Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations stated that a lawsuit could be filed “not later than 2 years after the occurrence or the termination of an alleged discriminatory practice.” The Developers argued that the statute began to run as soon as its plans for Lions Gate were made public, meaning that the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit was time-barred since it was filed six years after the plans were made public. Looking at other courts interpreting this language, the court ruled that two-year period began after the final unlawful occurrence. Since units were being sold within the two year period prior to the lawsuit being filed, the statute of limitations did not bar this lawsuit.

Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., v. Rommel Builder, Inc., 40 F. Supp. 2d 700 (D. Md. 1999).