NE Retirement community pays $87,000 settlement for banning motorized wheelchairs and scooters

The owners and managers of Savannah Pines, an Omaha retirement community, have agreed to a settlement potentially worth $87,000 to resolve a United States Department of Justice lawsuit filed on behalf of five disabled residents. Three of the residents will divide a $27,500 cash settlement. The remaining two residents have the option of receiving $15,000 in cash or 18 months of free rent at the community, including meals and use of all services, with a fair market value of $50,760.

Additionally, the April 2003 agreement calls for the defendants to establish a $5,000
fund to compensate unidentified victims of discrimination and to pay a $4,000 civil penalty to the United States Treasury.

Motorized wheelchairs and scooters banned; disabled tenants threatened with eviction

According to the Justice Department complaint, the owners and managers of Savannah Pines instituted several policies that prevented persons with disabilities from equally using and enjoying the community. Specifically, the company placed restrictions in leases requiring that  all residents “live independently” without caretakers, ordered residents with mobility impairments to purchase liability insurance for motorized wheelchairs and scooters, banned motorized wheelchairs and scooters from common areas at the community – including the dining hall – and only allowed residents with motorized wheelchairs or scooters to live on the first floor in the community.

Residents with motorized assistive devices had to pay higher security deposits at Savannah Pines as well. The management threatened to evict the five disabled plaintiffs when they violated the policies against motorized wheelchairs and scooters.

The Justice Department filed its lawsuit against Savannah Pines, Hallie Management Company, and three individual managers in December 2001. Working with attorneys from the Department’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and the United States Attorney’s Office for Nebrasksa, the plaintiffs and defendants reached a settlement agreement in April 2003.

The defendants denied the Justice Departments allegations and filed a counterclaim against the United States, alleging that Savannah Pines brought its rules regarding motorized scooters and wheelchairs into compliance with the Fair Housing Act when it was contacted by the Justice Department in the middle of 2001 and that the Justice Department had not informed Savannah Pines’ attorneys about other allegations in the Justice Department complaint.

Settlement comes quickly after judge denies defendants’ motion to dismiss complaint

Attorneys for Savannah Pines also filed a motion to dismiss the case in December 2002. United States District Judge Richard G. Kopf denied that motion shortly before the parties agreed to settle. Judge Kopf had referred the case to District Court Mediator John C. Brownrigg in December 2002, but the parties were unable to reach an agreement at that time.

Savannah Pines is an apartment-style retirement community in Omaha, Nebraska. It has 123 individual apartment units and two elevators. Its common areas - where motorized assistive devices were banned - include a dining hall, a bank, an exercise room, a theater, a gift shop, a pharmacy, a library, a salon, a computer room, and several conference rooms.

The defendants admitted that they did institute a ban on motorized devices but insisted that they did so to prevent property damage and injuries. The Consent Order resolving the case is in effect for three years.

U.S. v. Savannah Pines
Case No. 4:01CV3303 (D. Neb.)
The Honorable Richard G. Kopf, U.S. District Judge
Complaint filed: November 29, 2001
Consent Decree approved: April 30, 2003