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Hanks v. Tilley: ADA Does Not Apply to Residential Housing

The federal district court for the Middle District of North Carolina dismissed a lawsuit brought against a residential landlord (“Landlord”) by a former tenant (“Tenant”). The Tenant represented herself in this lawsuit. She alleged that the Landlord had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Congress enacted the ADA in 1992. 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 ADA has five separate titles, which separately address employment, public services, public accommodations, services operated by private entities, and telecommunications. Failure to comply with the ADA can result in a variety of penalties, including fines and injunctive relief. For in-depth information about the ADA, consult NAR’s ADA Compliance Kit (including questions and answers), posted on One Realtor Place’s Legal Section, or click here.

In her lawsuit, the Tenant alleged that the Landlord refused to allow her to make improvements to the single-family home she leased from him. The Tenant suffered from a post-polio and lupus condition, and she occasionally required the use of a wheelchair. The improvements she sought to make included the installation of a portable Jacuzzi, temporary ramps, and a removable above-ground pool. She claimed that these were necessary for her rehabilitation. She claimed that the Landlord was aware of her condition when she signed her lease.

The district court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the Landlord’s premises were not within the intended scope of ADA coverage. The only part of the ADA concerned with living space is Title III, which addresses “public accommodations.” A place of public accommodation is, among other things, a hotel, motel, or inn.

The court stated that the ADA is concerned with nonresidential housing, not residential housing. Since the Landlord’s premises was privately-owned residential housing, and not a place of public accommodation, the district court dismissed the Tenant’s lawsuit because the ADA did not apply.

In a footnote, the court noted that the Tenant’s claims would probably also fail under the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"). The FHA is intended to eliminate from the housing marketplace discrimination against protected classes. It contains a number of exceptions. The Landlord would be exempt from the FHA if: he did not own more than three single-family residential homes; did not use a broker/agent to rent the premises; did not engage in discriminatory advertising, as defined in the FHA; did not participate in a specified number of real estate transactions in the past year; and meets certain other requirements set out in the FHA. The court said that since the Landlord did not appear to own more than three single-family residential homes, he was likely exempt from the FHA’s requirements (assuming that he met the other statutory provisions).

Hanks v. Tilley, 15 Nat’l Disability L. Rep. 155 (M.D.N.C. 1999).