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Jankowski Lee & Associates, et. al. v. Cisneros: Refusal to Provide Assigned Parking Violates Fair Housing Act

In Jankowski Lee & Associates, et. al. v. Cisneros, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found that by refusing to reasonably accommodate a disabled tenant, the manager of an apartment complex, a corporation that partially owned the complex and the managing partner of the complex (together referred to as "Management") had violated the Fair Housing Act (the "FHA").

Andrew Rusinov has multiple sclerosis ("MS"). In 1986, having indicated on his application that he was disabled and had MS, he moved into the River Park Apartments ("River Park"). Many of the residents were elderly and used wheelchairs and walkers. Parking at the complex was on a first-come, first-served basis, and when Rusinov moved in, there was one handicapped parking space at each of the two buildings.

Because of his MS, Rusinov needed a large parking space close to his building and he asked the River Park property manager for an assigned parking space or a sufficient number of handicapped parking spaces. Without making any inquiry, she denied his request. She later testified that she didn't consider Rusinov’s request reasonable because she had observed him walking to and from his car, apparently without difficulty.

Rusinov filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") claiming that Management had "discriminated against him based on his handicap in violation of the FHA, by refusing to make a reasonable accommodation in their rules, policies, practices, and services related to parking." Shortly after the complaint was filed, the number of handicapped parking spaces at each building was increased to four, and a van-accessible parking space was added to the lot at Rusinov’s building.

After a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued an Initial Decision and Order holding that Management had violated the FHA. They were enjoined from discriminating against Rusinov, were required to assign a parking space to him as close as possible to his building, and were assessed a civil penalty of $2,500. The ALJ also awarded compensatory damages in the amount of $2,500 to Rusinov. This Initial Decision and Order became HUD’s final order.

Management sought review by the U.S. Court of Appeals. First they argued that they weren't aware of the extent of Rusinov’s disability. The court dismissed this argument, pointing out that the FHA specifically prohibits discrimination against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such dwelling because of a handicap," and that this also makes it unlawful to refuse "to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a handicapped] person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling."

The court stated that Rusinov’s MS is a handicap under the FHA. Therefore, when he requested the assigned parking space, Management had a duty to make a reasonable accommodation, and by not doing so, they violated the FHA.

The court made it clear that Management’s perceptions about Rusinov’s condition were irrelevant - if a landlord is skeptical about a tenant’s disability, it's the landlord’s responsibility to request documentation.

Management then argued that by increasing the number of handicapped parking spaces, it had done all that the FHA requires. The court disagreed, stating that increasing the number of spots for handicapped parking didn't amount to making a "reasonable accommodation." After the additional spaces were added, there still only were eight handicapped spots and one van spot for the 27 River Park tenants needing handicapped parking.

In addition, two of the owners of River Park, a corporate owner and the individual managing partner, argued that they were not liable. Again the court disagreed, observing that property owners may be vicariously liable for the discriminatory acts of their agents and employees.

Having found in favor of Rusinov in all respects, the court affirmed HUD’s final order.

Jankowski Lee & Associates, et al. vs. Cisneros, 91 F. 3d 891, 19 A.D.D. 619, 8 N.D.C.R.P. 341, (1996).