PHA May Be Liable for Discrimination
Facts: An elderly disabled resident experienced a psychotic episode one morning. Acting on the basis of delusions, she turned on her faucets, boiled pots of water, and obstructed the entrance to her unit. A maintenance employee smelled gasoline and unsuccessfully attempted to enter her unit. Police officers and emergency medical personnel were contacted, and they forcibly entered the unit. They were accompanied by an administrative officer who worked for the PHA.
The individuals entering the unit found the resident to be “disoriented, upset, and nude under her open housecoat.” She was transported to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. After leaving the unit, the administrative officer called the PHA’s executive director and recommended that an “eviction notice” be placed on the resident’s door. Such a letter was put on the resident’s door later that day.
When the resident was discharged from inpatient care on June 2, 2010, she was advised to seek follow-up treatment on an outpatient basis. At the time of her discharge, the resident was mentally and physically “stable.” On June 3, 2010, the resident gave the PHA written notice of her intent to vacate her unit, and she surrendered her keys to the unit on June 18, 2010. She temporarily moved into her daughter’s residence and awaited a decision concerning her application for Section 8 rental assistance.
A regulation governing the provision of Section 8 benefits permits a PHA to deny a family’s application for rental assistance “[i]f any member of the family has been evicted from federally assisted housing in the last five years.” Around Sept. 3, 2010, the resident received a letter stating that the PHA was withdrawing her application for Section 8 rental assistance from its waiting list because she had been evicted from a federal housing site.
The resident requested an informal hearing regarding the PHA’s decision to remove her from the waiting list. On the portion of the request form soliciting her reasons for contesting the PHA’s decision, she stated that she had stopped taking her “depression medication” because it had elevated her blood pressure. She attributed her psychotic episode to the discontinuance of her medication. In support of her position, the resident submitted a letter from a certified registered nurse practitioner, stating that the resident currently receives treatment, is prompt for appointments, and complies with her treatment regimen. It also stated that at the time of her hospitalization the resident had been having medical and psychiatric problems that have since cleared. The resident insisted that she was “doing better” and suggested that she wouldn’t experience psychotic episodes in the future.
The hearing officer upheld the PHA’s decision. In his decision, the hearing officer determined that the resident’s eviction from public housing had been “demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence.” The resident appealed this decision and sued the PHA for housing discrimination based on her mental disability. Both sides asked the court for a judgment without a trial.
Ruling: A Pennsylvania district court denied both parties’ request and ordered the trial to continue.
Reasoning: The Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires housing providers “to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a handicapped person an] equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” Nonetheless, the court pointed out that the FHA doesn’t require that a dwelling be made available to an individual whose tenancy would constitute a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals or whose tenancy would result in substantial physical damage to the property of others.
According to the court, a PHA runs the risk of violating the FHA when it proceeds to evict a disabled tenant without making an “individualized assessment” of the relevant factors. And during her deposition, the PHA’s executive director admitted that the eviction decision had been made without regard to whether a reasonable accommodation could have eliminated any “threat” posed by the resident’s continued residency at the site. On the basis of this evidence, the court concluded that a reasonable person could conclude that the PHA declined to assess the risks posed by the resident’s tenancy on an individualized basis and refused to consider her implicit request for accommodations. Therefore, a trial was needed to uncover the resident’s communications with the PHA and the nature of the threat that her continued residency at the site may have posed to other residents.
- Brooker v. Altoona Housing Authority, June 2013