Mentally disabled man wins $160,000 settlement from Illinois condo association and managers

Earlier this year, Michael Scialabba, a disabled young man; his parents, James and Barbara Scialabba; and HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, Illinois settled a federal lawsuit against the Sierra Blanca Condominium Number One Association in Hanover Park, Illinois, and ABC Property Managers, Inc. The $160,000 settlement in January resolves complaints resulting from continual harassment by neighbors and the condo association based on Michael’s disability.

Under the general terms of the settlement, the condominium association and property managers agreed to pay $160,000 and to take measures to prevent and eradicate discrimination against any current or future resident at Sierra Blanca on the basis of the individual’s actual or perceived disability. The defendants agreed to purchase a $50,000 annuity for Michael Scialabba’s benefit as part of the settlement.

In 1984, Michael suffered a traumatic brain injury in an automobile accident. As a result of the injury, Michael’s speech and movements are impaired, causing him to have difficulty speaking and walking.

Neighbor called disabled man "retard face"

After the accident, Michael was harassed and intimidated by neighbors and the condominium owners association. One particular resident called Michael "retard face," screamed "duh" at him when she saw him, and accused him of being a "stalker" and a "pervert." This neighbor filed several police actions against Michael but failed to appear in court each time charges were heard. Children at the complex repeatedly harassed and taunted Michael and stole his wallet and shoes from the swimming pool on more than one occasion. The Scialabbas made repeated complaints to the Association, but it took no action to stop the harassment.

The condominium association refused to make reasonable accommodations for Michael’s disabilities and placed liens on his parents’ home for legal expenses the Association might incur as a result of Michael’s violations of association rules. According to documents, others violated rules but had never had liens placed on their homes.

In June and July 1996, the Scialabbas and HOPE met with the Association in an attempt to get reasonable accommodations for Michael’s disabilities. The Association refused and told the Scialabbas that they could stay in their home only if Michael was committed to an institution. The Scialabbas refused, and the Association filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the Scialabbas from their home. That suit was later dismissed.

On September 4, 1996, the Scialabbas filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). After nearly three years, HUD failed to issue a determination in the complaint. The Scialabbas withdrew that complaint on June 10, 1999 and later filed a federal lawsuit with the help of HOPE and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Law requires reasonable accommodations

The federal court made two important rulings prior to the case settling. First, the court determined that housing providers have a duty to make good faith efforts to accommodate disabled residents before they attempt to remove them from units. This is true even if a landlord or association contends that a disabled resident may pose a direct threat to the property, health or safety of others.

Second, the court determined that the Illinois Condominium Property Act allows a cause of action based on negligence, meaning that an association may be held liable for failing to follow its declarations, by-laws, rules and regulations. Sharon K. Legenza, Fair Housing Project Director for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, represented the plaintiffs in this case along with John Z. Lee, a partner in Freeborn & Peters, a national law firm headquartered in Chicago. For further information about the Fair Housing Project, visit the website: http://www.clccrul.org.

HOPE Fair Housing Center is a nonprofit fair housing agency located in Wheaton, Illinois, dedicated to promoting equal housing opportunities through education, research, outreach, enforcement, training and advocacy.

Scialabba v. Sierra Blanca Condominium (N.D. Ill. 2000) - No. 00 C 5344
The Honorable Susan B. Conlon, Judge
Sharon K. Legenza and John Z. Lee, Attorneys for the Plaintiffs

From the July 2002 Advocate