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Bentley v. Peace & Quiet Realty 2 LLC: Lawsuit over Apartment Switching Request Proceeds

A New York federal court has considered whether a disabled tenant’s request to move into a higher priced apartment within the same building at her current rental rate could constitute a reasonable request for accommodation by the tenant.

Daphne Bentley (“Tenant”) is a 66-year old woman who has lived in the same apartment for 24 years in a building owned by Peace and Quiet Realty 2 LLC (“Landlord”). The Tenant’s apartment is on the top floor of a four-story walk-up building. The Tenant is a cancer patient who underwent a number of surgeries in 2004 which made it very difficult for her to climb the stairs up to her apartment. Because of this, the Tenant only leaves her apartment when she has to and is dependent on the assistance of her neighbors. The Tenant’s rent is stabilized at $820.64/month because of the New York City Rent Stabilization law.

In the summer of 2004, a tenant vacated a second floor apartment in the Landlord’s building. The Tenant contacted the Landlord about the second floor apartment, requesting to move into the second floor unit. Then, in October 2004, a tenant vacated a ground floor apartment. The stabilized rent for the ground floor unit had been $833.59/month. The Tenant requested to be moved to the ground floor unit. The Landlord responded by stating that she could move to the ground floor unit at a rental rate of $1,000.30/month, the maximum amount of rent the Landlord was allowed to charge the Tenant under the city’s rent control ordinance.

The Tenant filed a lawsuit, alleging that the Landlord’s actions violated the federal Fair Housing Act (“Act”) as well as New York’s human rights laws. The Tenant argued that the Act required the Landlord to honor the Tenant’s request for a reasonable accommodation of renting the ground floor apartment at the same rental rate as her current apartment. The Tenant also stated that the Landlord would suffer little harm for honoring her accommodation request, as the Landlord could then rent her current apartment at a higher rental rate. The Tenant sought a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Landlord from renting the ground floor apartment, and the court granted the Tenant’s request. The Landlord then filed a motion to dismiss the Tenant’s lawsuit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that the Tenant’s request did not constitute a recognizable accommodation under the Act.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York rejected the Landlord’s motion to dismiss and allowed the Tenant’s lawsuit to move forward. The court considered whether the Tenant’s request fell within the Act’s definition of a “reasonable accommodation”. The Act makes it illegal to discriminate against an individual in the sale or rental of housing because of the individual’s handicap, and amendments to the Act also prohibit “a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [the handicapped individual] an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” A “reasonable accommodation” request is a fact-specific request evaluated on a case-by-case basis by courts.

The court then reviewed whether the Landlord had improperly failed to honor the Tenant’s accommodation request. A party alleging discrimination based on the failure to accommodate must show the following: first, a handicap as defined in the Act; second, defendant knew or reasonably should have known about the tenant’s handicap; third, the accommodation may be necessary to allow the individual equal access to the dwelling; and finally, the defendant refused to make such an accommodation. In this case, the Landlord does not dispute that it knew the Tenant was handicapped or that it refused to honor her accommodation request. Instead, the Landlord argued that her request was an economic request to accommodate her poverty rather than her physical condition and that the Landlord had met its obligation to the Tenant under the Act by offering her the ground floor apartment at the maximum rate allowed under the rent control law.

The court first considered whether the Act applied to the Tenant’s request. The Act defines “dwelling” as “any building, structure, or portion thereof which is occupied as, or designed or intended for occupancy as, a residence by one or more families”. The court found that the Act extended to space outside of the Tenant’s own unit and covered the whole building. Thus, the court determined that switching apartments to accommodate the Tenant’s disability in order to allow her to remain in the community in which she had lived for over twenty was a request which met the purpose of the Act. Thus, the court ruled that apartment switching could constitute a reasonable accommodation request.

Next, the court considered the Landlord’s argument that it had met the Act’s requirements by offering the Tenant the ground floor apartment at $1,000.30. The court rejected that argument, finding that the Act required, under certain circumstances, a landlord “to incur reasonable costs to accommodate” a tenant’s handicap. Thus, the court found that the Tenant’s request to rent the ground floor unit at the same rental rate as her current rent could constitute a reasonable accommodation request.

Finally, the Landlord argued that the disability-neutral rent stabilization law of New York City trumped the Act’s requirements because the rent stabilization law affects both handicapped and nonhandicapped individuals equally. The Landlord argued that by providing the Tenant with an apartment below the rental rate found in the rent stabilization law, the Tenant would actually be receiving a preference instead of an accommodation. Looking at the relevant cases, the court stated that even if the Tenant’s accommodation request was a preference, it does not stop the court from examining the request to determine the reasonableness of the request. Therefore, the court concluded that the Tenant’s accommodation request could constitute a reasonable accommodation request under the Act, and so the court denied the Landlord’s motion to dismiss. The court stated that further proceedings were needed to evaluate the reasonableness of the Tenant’s accommodation request.

Bentley v. Peace & Quiet Realty 2 LLC, 367 F. Supp. 2d 341 (E.D.N.Y. 2005).