Maryland: Who Bears the Burden of Proof as to the Reasonableness of a Requested Accommodation?
The Maryland Court of Appeals has shifted the burden in disability discrimination cases and now requires associations to prove that a requested accommodation was unreasonable.
Under the Fair Housing Act, an association is required to allow an accommodation if the accommodation is reasonable and necessary to afford disabled persons equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing. In Maryland, up until a recent decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the burden of proving that an accommodation was reasonable fell to the person requesting the accommodation. That has changed.
In a March 28, 2013, decision from the Court of Appeals in Board of Directors of Cameron Grove Condominium v. State Commission on Human Relations, married unit owners, in an over-55 community, filed suit against their condominium association claiming that the association’s refusal to provide keys to the side and back doors of their condominium building amounted to disability discrimination. The owners claimed that by not having keys to the doors located closest to their units, they encountered difficulties in gaining access to their homes and carrying out daily activities. The owners submitted written requests with statements from physicians indicating that the keys would help them with their disabilities. The Association declined to provide the keys, citing security concerns and explaining that (1) the doors were heavy and dangerous for residents to use, (2) the keys could be duplicated, causing security breaches, and (3) installing a passcard system and safety doors would cost $19,000. The owners argued that the Association’s denial of their request amounted to disability discrimination. The Court sided with the owners and noted that the owners only requested copies of the keys – not a new entry system.
After years and years of appeals in this case, the Maryland Court of Appeals was asked to decide which party, the owners or the association, had the burden of proving the reasonableness of a requested accommodation. The Court of Appeals decided that once the owner shows that the requested accommodation is generally reasonable, the burden shifts to the association to prove that the accommodation is actually unreasonable, given its cost and the financial status of the association. The Court noted that plaintiffs in such cases rarely have the necessary financial information to prove that the association has the resources to afford an accommodation, so the Court shifted the burden to the party refusing the accommodation. (In the context of community associations, this finding is interesting given the owner’s right to review the Association’s financial records which arguably would provide the owner with sufficient information to reach a conclusion.) In addition to the financial considerations, the Court rejected the Association’s arguments that providing keys would create safety concerns. So the final decision was that the Association failed to prove the requested accommodation was unreasonable.
This case serves as a reminder that Associations should adopt reasonable accommodation policies. Associations need to be mindful that the Fair Housing Act contemplates that owners and associations will engage in an interactive process if the requested accommodation cannot be granted by the association so that the parties can explore other possible options. Finally, before denying a request for an accommodation, it is always a good idea to consult with legal counsel, particularly in light of the Court of Appeals’ decision in Cameron Grove.