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Scoggins v. Lee’s Crossing Homeowner’s Association, No. 11-2202, 11-2373

Decided May 17, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of plaintiffs’ requested disability accommodation to their homeowners’ association policy (the HOA). The court also affirmed the district court’s denial of defendant’s request for attorneys’ fees and costs. However, the court vacated the district court’s ruling on the plaintiffs’ requested modification to their HOA, finding that the claim was not ripe.

Dan and Debbie Scoggins live with their disabled 22-year-old son in Lee’s Crossing. All residents of Lee’s Crossing are subject to the rules of the HOA as well as the restrictive covenants. However, because the Scoggins’ son is partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, they requested they be able to make certain modifications to their property and that their son be permitted to use transportation ordinarily prohibited in the neighborhood. Specifically, the plaintiffs requested permission to build a wheelchair ramp without the board approval required by the HOA policy. In addition, they sought permission for their son to use an ATV in the streets even though the restrictive covenants ordinarily prohibit these vehicles.  Debbie Scoggins sent an email to HOA representatives regarding this ATV request in May 2009, but it remained dormant until August of 2010 at which time Debbie Scoggins renewed the request. In September of 2010, the HOA representatives replied, seeking additional information to which plaintiffs did not respond. At this time plaintiffs also submitted their request for the wheelchair ramp. Although the review board is permitted 30 days to respond to such requests, the plaintiffs did not wait for a denial or for the expiration of the 30 days. Instead, the plaintiffs filed a complaint in district court on October 13, 2010 under the federal Fair Housing Act Amendments (“FHAA”). In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged (1) the defendants’ failure to allow a reasonable modification of the plaintiffs’ home to add the front ramp violated the FHAA and (2) the defendants’ refusal to permit a reasonable accommodation allowing their son to operate an ATV violated the FHAA.  The district court never reached the merits of (1) the plaintiffs’ ramp request claim, finding that it was not ripe for review. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on (2) the plaintiffs’ ATV request claim. The defendants’ subsequently filed a motion seeking attorneys’ fees and costs, which the district court denied on the basis that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit was not frivolous and, therefore, an award of attorneys’ fees and costs was not required under the FHAA.

The court first addressed the plaintiffs’ ramp request claim and whether the district court erred in concluding this claim was premature. An issue becomes ripe for adjudication under the FHAA when a disabled resident first is denied a reasonable and necessary modification or accommodation. Because the plaintiffs did not wait for their ramp request to be denied, it was not yet ripe for adjudication. As such, the court vacated the district court’s holding on the merits of the modification request for the wheelchair access ramp, because that claim was not ripe. The court next addressed the plaintiff’s ATV request claim and whether the district court erred in awarding summary judgment to the defendants.  The court found that the HOA’s failure to take any action for such an extended period operated as a constructive denial of the ATV request. However, for the denial to violate the FHAA, the proposed accommodation must be reasonable and necessary to afford handicapped persons equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing. The court focused on the reasonableness prong of the proposed ATV accommodation. The potential for injury is a relevant consideration in examining reasonableness, as well as the health and safety of others. In this light, the court found that although the ATV would be of great benefit to the plaintiffs’ son, that benefit is outweighed substantially by the potential danger an ATV could cause to residents of the community. As such, the court did not find the ATV request claim was reasonable or that the defendants’ denial was in violation of the FHAA. The court last addressed the defendants’ contention on cross-appeal that the district court erred in declining to award them attorneys’ fees and certain additional costs incurred in defending this matter. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that when an action involves a civil rights matter, and the prevailing party is a defendant, attorneys’ fees may be awarded by a district court only upon a finding that the plaintiff’s action was frivolous. However, the court found that the plaintiffs’ claims were not frivolous. In fact, the court found that a plaintiff filing a lawsuit under the FHAA acts to effectuate the intent of Congress vindicated the policies underlying that Act. As such, attorney’s fees were not available to the defendants.

Full Opinion

– Sarah Bishop