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Rodriguez v. Montalvo: Court Allows Attachment of Landlord's Property

A Massachusetts federal court has considered whether a tenant could attach a landlord's property during the pendancy of her Fair Housing lawsuit against the landlord.

Maria Rodriguez ("Tenant") leased a first floor apartment from Victor Montalvo ("Landlord"). The Tenant lived with her son Jose, who suffered from Duchenne's Muscular Dystrophy and was a quadriplegic who required the use of a wheelchair. In order to help accommodate her son's disability, the Tenant sought permission from the Landlord to modify the dwelling. Specifically, she wanted to install a permanent ramp to the apartment at her own expense and she also offered to pay for the removal of the ramp upon the termination of her tenancy. The Tenant made this request several times, but the Landlord refused her request and instead allowed her to temporary boards over the stairs which could easily be removed.

The Tenant found the Landlord's temporary ramp solution unhelpful. During the winter months, the boards were not secure in icy or snowy conditions. The ramp also required two people to wheel Jose into the house. Finally, in 2001, Jose began requiring a ventilator to breathe and so he began using a special wheelchair. The special wheelchair was too big for both the temporary ramp and the front door. Therefore, Jose had to be disconnected from the ventilator and the ramp in order to enter the house. Jose rarely left the house after he began using the temporary wheelchair, as he was afraid to be disconnected from the ventilator. Jose eventually died in June 2002.

The Tenant brought a lawsuit against the Landlord and his girlfriend Lori Oltman, who was the broker of the premises. The Tenant's lawsuit alleged violations of the federal Fair Housing Act ("Act"), a state anti-discrimination action, and also various other allegations. The Tenant also filed a motion with the trial court seeking to attach the Landlord's real estate in the amount of $125,000, which was the alleged value of the property.

The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts allowed the Tenant's motion for attachment. "Attachment" is the legal process of seizing another's property through a judicial order to secure satisfaction of a judgment which has yet to be rendered against the owner. A federal court can authorize attachment orders by following the law in the state where the court sits. Massachusetts' law allows a court to issue an attachment order when the court determines during a hearing that there is a reasonable likelihood that the party will recover a judgment against the other party over and above any insurance the other party may have. Since the Landlord had no insurance, the question before the court was whether the Tenant would succeed in her lawsuit and the amount of damages she would recover from the Landlord.

The Tenant contended she would recover $162,200 in damages, which included: $75,000 in compensatory damages, $75,000 in attorney's fees, $5,000 in costs, and $7,200 in punitive damages. The Act is designed to prevent discrimination in the housing marketplace, and defines unlawful discrimination as "a refusal to permit, at the expense of the handicapped person, reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such persons if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises except that, in the case of a rental, the landlord may where it is reasonable to do so condition permission for a modification on the renter agreeing to restore the interior of the premises". To collect damages, the Tenant therefore needed to show that the Landlord refused a modification of the premises that was reasonable and necessary for her son to enjoy the premises.

The court found that it was likely that the Tenant would succeed in her lawsuit under the Act and so the court granted her motion for attachment of the Landlord's property. The court stated that the Tenant's requested modifications were reasonable and should have been granted by the Landlord. The Landlord tried to raise some procedural issues that could bar the Tenant's lawsuit, but the court rejected these arguments as meritless. Looking at the possible damages that the Tenant would collect from the Landlord, the court decided that $75,000 was a more likely estimate, with the Tenant recovering $50,000 in compensatory damages and $25,000 in costs. Therefore, the court grated her motion for attachment of the Landlord's property in the amount of $75,000.

Rodriguez v. Montalvo, 337 F. Supp. 2d 212 (D. Mass. 2004).