Board of Directors of Cameron Grove Condominium, II, et al. v. State Commission on Human Relations,
No. 47, September Term 2012.
STATUTORY INTERPRETATION - HOUSING DISCRIMINATION - BURDEN OF PROOF
Under Section 22(a)(9) of Article 49B of the Maryland Annotated Code, which states that it is unlawful "[t]o refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when the accommodations may be necessary to afford a handicapped individual equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling[,]" the complaining party must prove that the requested accommodation is necessary and make a prima facie showing that the accommodation is reasonable, but the defending party ultimately bears the burden of proving a requested accommodation is unreasonable.
Bell, C.J. Harrell Battaglia Greene Adkins Barbera McDonald, JJ.
Harrell, J., joins judgment only.
This judicial review action under Section 32(h) of Article 49B of the Maryland Annotated Code (1957, 1998 Repl. Vol.),*fn1 involves the interpretation of Section 22 of Article 49B of the Maryland Annotated Code*fn2 as to the proper apportionment of the burden of proving the cost of a disability accommodation under a reasonableness standard. Arguing in administrative proceedings before the Maryland Commission on Human Relations (Commission),*fn3 Peggy Daniel and Albert Doby, disabled residents of Cameron Grove Condominium II, a condominium located in a retirement community for people 55 years of age and older in Prince George's County, pursued their complaints that the Board of Directors of Cameron Grove II (Cameron Grove) and their property management company, H&E Management, Ltd.,*fn4 had discriminated against them by refusing to grant a reasonable accommodation for their disabilities. Specifically, Ms. Daniel and Mr. Doby alleged that Cameron Grove refused to provide keys to the side and back doors to their building to permit them to more fully use and enjoy their dwellings.
Ms. Daniel and Mr. Doby filed complaints with the Commission in 2006, alleging that Cameron Grove had refused to accommodate their disabilities.*fn5 After the Commission reviewed the complaints and certified that there was probable cause to believe that Cameron Grove had discriminated against the complainants, the case was assigned to an administrative law judge from the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).*fn6 The administrative law judge ruled that Ms. Daniel and Mr. Doby had not proven that giving them keys to the side and back doors was necessary and reasonable. An Appeal Board of the Commission (Appeal Board or Board), however, disagreed and issued a final decision in which the Board determined that Cameron Grove was required to prove that giving Ms. Daniel and Mr. Doby keys was an unreasonable financial burden and that Cameron Grove had failed to establish that giving the complainants keys presented "an undue burden" or necessitated "substantial or impracticable changes." On judicial review,*fn7 a circuit court judge disagreed with the Board's determination and remanded the matter to the Appeal Board to reconsider the issues in light of his burden allocation, which was that Ms. Daniel and Mr. Doby should have been required to prove reasonableness. The Court of Special Appeals vacated, before the Board acted on the decision of the circuit court judge. Cameron Grove then petitioned this Court for certiorari, which we granted, 427 Md. 605, 50 A.3d 605 (2012), to consider the following questions:
1. Whether the Agency erred by requiring that the
Petitioner show evidence that thieves and vandals had gained illegal entry to the building before it could prohibit keys from being distributed to doors which were not secure?
2. Whether the Agency erred by failing to perform the balancing test required by the Maryland reasonable accommodation statute?
3. Whether the Agency erred by ignoring the Planning
Board's Specific Design Plan, which required that a security system be installed on the doors in question?
We shall hold that Cameron Grove was required to prove that providing keys to Ms. Daniel and Mr. Doby was unreasonable in light of the costs attendant in doing so, that the Appeal Board properly performed the requisite balancing test when it concluded that Cameron Grove unreasonably denied Ms. Daniel's and Mr. Doby's requests to be given keys to the side and back doors of their building, and that there is substantial evidence to support the Board's conclusion.
Central to our discussion is the fact that, under Section 22(a)(9), it is unlawful "[t]o refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when the accommodations may be necessary to afford a handicapped individual equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling." The accommodation in issue was providing keys to the side and back doors of the condominium building in which Mr. Doby and Ms. Daniel lived, as an accommodation necessary to allow them to access the facilities, including a Resort Center that offered various activities, and to carry out their daily activities, such as bringing in groceries:*fn8
Complainants Doby and Daniel moved into Cameron Grove II in 2004 and 2001 respectively. Complainants are disabled. Due to not having keys (and therefore no access) to doors close to their units (side/back doors), Complainants in their disabilities encountered difficulties in gaining access to their homes and in traversing to and from the community in carrying out daily activities. They were forced to travel greater distance than they otherwise would have with keys to the side/back doors. As their disabilities were painful and greatly limited physical mobility, they were limited in carrying out daily activities requiring traversing the community. They began requesting keys verbally from [Cameron Grove] shortly after moving in. In 2006, they submitted written requests with physician statements affirming that the requested keys would help them in their disabilities.
Cameron Grove denied their requests, asserting that giving Mr. Doby and Ms. Daniel keys would be a safety hazard, that the doors themselves were heavy and dangerous for the residents to use and that installing passcard systems and safety doors at the requested locations would cost almost $19,000:
[Cameron Grove] denied their requests based on security and cost concerns. Several acts of vandalism had occurred on the property. [Cameron Grove] maintained that as any key could be duplicated, provision of a key to two residents would undermine its legitimate interest in ensuring the safety of its residents. Additionally, [Cameron Grove] argued that as the side/back doors had no windows and were very heavy, allowing free ingress and egress presented a safety hazard as persons could inadvertently push the doors into each other causing injury. It also maintained that installing a security and pass code system to allow for access to the side/back doors cost approximately $18,900.00 according to estimates it obtained.
With respect to the ruling of the administrative law judge that the complaints should have been dismissed, the Board determined that the administrative law judge erred:
Turning to what the ALJ termed as "THE MERITS" portion of her decision, this Board holds that the ALJ erred in finding that the Appellees' "denial of Complainants' requests for keys to the side and loading dock doors did not constitute a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in the rules, policies, practices, or services necessary to afford the Complainants equal opportunity to use and enjoy their dwellings in violation of subsection (9) of [s]section 22(a) of Article 49B." The Appeal Board considered two issues on appeal:
(1) Whether the ALJ erred in concluding that Appellees' refusal of the Appellants' request for keys to the side/back doors of their condominium building did not violate Article 49B of the Annotated Code of Maryland. (2) Whether the Statement of Charges is moot because Respondent has now provided the keys originally requested by Complainants to all residents of Cameron Grove II.
The Board began its discussion of the issues by setting forth the elements of proving whether an accommodation was improperly refused, noting that, under the Federal Fair Housing Act, Sections 3600 et. seq. of Title 42 of the United States Code (2006),*fn9 an accommodation is required to be made "if the accommodation is (1) reasonable and (2) necessary (3) to afford handicapped persons equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing." The Board utilized the framework articulated by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Bryant Woods Inn, Inc. v. Howard County, Md., 124 F.3d 597 (4th Cir. 1997) and concluded that "furnishing the keys did not present undue financial burdens or requirements of substantial or impracticable changes" and was, therefore, a reasonable accommodation. The Appeal Board dismissed Cameron Grove's argument that granting the accommodation was too costly:
A. The ALJ Incorrectly Concluded that the Accommodation Was Not Reasonable
In Bryant Woods Inn, Inc. v. Howard County, MD 124 F.3[d] 597 (4th Cir. 1997) the Court enunciated a two-part test for determining whether an accommodation for disabled persons was required. The court stated that the FHA requires an accommodation for persons with handicaps if the accommodation is (1) reasonable and (2) necessary (3) to afford handicapped persons equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing. Bryant Woods at 603. Providing the keys was a reasonable accommodation because furnishing the keys did not present undue financial burdens or requirements of substantial or impracticable changes.
The Board noted that Cameron Grove's assertion that granting Mr. Doby's and Ms. Daniel's requests would require the installation of a security system, at a cost of almost $19,000, was not sufficient to show that the requested accommodation was unreasonable. Cameron Grove had argued that the Specific Design Plan, created when the Cameron Grove Condominium Complex was contemplated, required that all entrances and exits be equipped with security systems.*fn10 The Board determined, however, the security and passcard systems were not requests made by the ...