U.S. District Court Again Rules Condo Inaccessibility Violates Rights of the Disabled

Baltimore Neighborhoods, Incorporated
2217 St. Paul Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21218
Fax: 410-889-8653 March 31, 1999

In a second landmark decision in as many weeks, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Walter E. black, Jr. has ruled that the inaccessibility of a condominium development in Baltimore county is a clear violation of the requirement of the federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) that new condominiums and apartments be designed and constructed so as to be accessible to people with disabilities. Judge Black issued his opinion on March 25, 1999, against all but one of the named defendants in a lawsuit brought by Michael Hylton, a wheelchair user, and Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. (BNI), a private, nonprofit organization devoted to fair housing in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

The combination of this decision and one Judge Black rendered just two weeks ago in a BNI lawsuit against the Lion's Gate condominium development in Anne Arundel County will have resounding effects in similar lawsuits now pending in courts throughout the country. Until these cases, no court had ruled on these issues which are so critically important to people with disabilities struggling to assert their housing rights.

In this case, Judge Black agreed that plaintiffs BNI and Hylton had established all of their allegations regarding violations of the FHAA and ruled, as a matter of law, that the plaintiffs are entitled to a favorable judgement. In doing that, he rejected the efforts of the defendant builders and developers to avoid liability. Five of the six named defendants in the lawsuit involved in the design and construction of the Red Fox Farms condominium development in Baltimore County have been held liable under this ruling: Sterling L. Leppo, Sterling Properties Associates IV, Sterling Properties Associates V, Red Fox Farms Development Group, and Sterling construction and Management Corporation. As to the sixth defendant, Sterling Homes Corporation, Judge Black ruled that its involvement in the design and construction of Red Fox Farms is a disputed issue of fact which must go to trial.

BNI's lawsuit alleged that 57 of 68 ground floor units at the Red Fox Farms development violate the FHAA's accessibility requirements. In addition, public and "common use" areas of the development, such as parking areas, front common entrances, mailboxes, trash facilities and sidewalks are inaccessible. Wheelchair users are unlawfully precluded from access to the front entrances of the buildings at Red Fox Farms because of steps. Only a handful of the ground floor units can be entered at all by wheelchair users and then only from rear entrances. Hallways and doors within the 57 units in question are not wide enough to provide access for a person using a wheelchair. In some places, bathroom walls are inadequately reinforced to permit installation of grab bars. Both bathrooms and kitchens have insufficient space for a wheelchair user to maneuver.

Judge Black ruled that undisputed evidence presented by the plaintiffs proved all of these violations. In addition, he ruled that the defendants' practice of charging unit owners to widen doorways and make other modifications to make their units handicap accessible is a violation of the FHAA.

Under Judge Black's ruling, all factual issues except two are resolved. The two factual issues going to trial are the liability of the Sterling Homes Corporation and BNI's allegation that the FHAA requires that walkways leading to the only accessible entrances that exist at the development, the handful in the rear, must have lighting for safety at night just like the paths with steps leading to the front entrances used by non-handicapped people. Also going to trial will be the issue of damages, both compensatory and punitive, and remedial relief to correct the accessibility problems which exist at Red Fox Farms, such as a retrofitting fund for residents to use to make their units accessible.

Although the FHAA was enacted in 1988 and its accessibility provisions have been in effect since March 1991, surveys that BNI conducted in 1994 and 1995 disclosed that 75 percent of all new apartment and condominium developments in the Baltimore metropolitan area are inaccessible to people with disabilities. BNI followed these surveys with lawsuits filed in 1996 against six of the more egregious offenders. Red Fox Farms is one of those.

BNI's Associate Director, Martin Dyer, said: "These two cases represent major victories for people with disabilities who must still suffer the indignities associated with inaccessible housing. Encountering steps that block access to a building or entrances that are too narrow to permit wheelchair access is like having a door slammed in your face because of your race or ethnicity. Although we continue to hear complaints about the lack of clarity of the accessibility requirements, it does not require a rocket scientist to figure out how to make a kitchen or bathroom large enough or a doorway wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Nor should there by any question that a single step is more than enough to block access for a person who uses a wheelchair. The problem will be solved only when those who design and construct buildings become sensitive and responsive to the needs of the more than 40 million people in this country known to have disabilities."

BNI is represented in this lawsuit by Andre D. Levy and Lauren E. Willis of Brown, Goldstein and Levy, a law firm specializing in civil rights cases. Questions should be directed either to Mr. Levy or Ms. Willis at 410.962.1030 or to Mr. Dyer at 410.243.4400.