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Court of Appeals Rejects Disabled Tenants' Fair Housing Defense

On July 18, 2005, the Court of Appeals of Maryland issued its decision in Solberg v. Majerle Management, a case in which the PJC represented two tenants, Erick Solberg and Deborah Sossen, who were found to have breached their residential lease with their landlord, Majerle Management.  Both of the tenants have serious physical disabilities which require that they live in a low toxic environment and avoid all exposure to pesticides and other respiratory irritants.  The tenants’ lease incorporated the requirements of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by requiring the landlord to make reasonable accommodations, including following prescribed medical protocols before entering the leased premises, in order to reduce the risk of harmful exposure to the tenants.  The case arose when the landlord’s agent demanded that he be allowed to inspect the property, but refused to follow the prescribed medical protocols or to reschedule planned inspections when requested by the tenants.  The prescribed medical protocols included such innocuous items as not wearing recently dry-cleaned clothes or polished shoes during inspections of the property.
The Court of Appeals agreed that the tenants were individuals with disabilities and thus were entitled to reasonable accommodations under the federal Fair Housing Act, but held that the requested accommodations were not reasonable.  The Court did not analyze the costs and burdens of the accommodations, the proper standard under the FHA.  Instead, the Court appeared to be swayed by the atypical nature of the disability and the requested accommodations, which the Court characterized as requiring "wholesale and dramatic changes in [the landlord's agent's] own lifestyle and personal hygiene."  This was contrary to the uncontradicted evidence before the Circuit Court that the landlord's agent already followed the vast majority of the requested accommodations in his daily routine.  Unfortunately, this decision suggests that much work remains to be done in educating the courts about disability issues.    Beth Mellen Harrison, our Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow, deserves much credit for a valiant fight.

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