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Schaw v. Habitat for Humanity of Citrus County, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

September 18, 2019

ALBERT SCHAW, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
HABITAT FOR HUMANITY OF CITRUS COUNTY, INC., Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 5:16-cv-00311-JSM-PRL

          Before TJOFLAT, MARCUS, and NEWSOM, Circuit Judges.

          NEWSOM, Circuit Judge.

         Albert Schaw, a quadriplegic, applied for a home with Habitat for Humanity of Citrus County. Because his annual social-security-disability income didn't meet Habitat's minimum-income threshold, Schaw requested an accommodation that would allow him to supplement those funds with either food stamps or a notarized letter memorializing the financial support that he received from his family. When Habitat refused, Schaw sued under the Fair Housing Amendments Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et. seq., which prohibits an entity from discriminating against a disabled individual by failing to make "reasonable accommodations" in policies and practices that are "necessary to afford" the individual an "equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling." Id. § 3604(f)(3)(B). Schaw separately alleged that Habitat's minimum-income requirement has a disparate impact on disabled individuals receiving social-security-disability income.

         The district court granted Habitat summary judgment on the basis that Schaw's requested accommodation wasn't "necessary" within the meaning of the Act, reasoning that it would alleviate only his "financial condition-not his disability." The court also concluded that Schaw had failed to state a disparate-impact claim. After careful review, we conclude that while the district court correctly rejected Schaw's disparate-impact claim, it failed to properly analyze his failure-to-accommodate claim. Accordingly, we vacate and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion as to Schaw's failure-to-accommodate claim.

         I

         A

         Shortly after he graduated from high school, Albert Schaw was in a wrestling accident that left him completely paralyzed. Schaw is now wheelchair-bound, and his current abode is ill-suited to accommodate his quadriplegia-it isn't wheelchair accessible, and there's no way for him to close the bathroom door for privacy. After seeing a television advertisement for Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that builds new homes for low-income individuals, Schaw decided to apply.

         When Schaw met to discuss the application process with Habitat's Family Services Director, Rose Strawn, he learned that Habitat imposes a minimum-gross-annual-income requirement of $10,170, presumably to ensure that potential homeowners will be able to pay their mortgages. According to Schaw, his disability prevents him from working, so his main source of income is a Social Security Disability Insurance stipend of $778 per month, which equates to a gross annual income of $9,336. Given the fixed nature of his SSDI, Schaw asked Habitat to consider one of two other sources of income toward its requirement. First, Schaw receives $194 per month in food stamps. With the food stamps, Schaw's gross annual income would be $11,664-enough to qualify. Second, Schaw receives $100 per month in familial support from his father. With that gift, his gross annual income (even excluding the food stamps) would be $10,536-also enough to qualify. On Strawn's recommendation, Schaw provided a notarized letter from his father confirming that he gives Schaw $100 each month.

         Habitat's Board of Directors reviewed Schaw's application and determined that it couldn't accept either of the two additional sources of income. It wouldn't consider the food stamps because Habitat follows HUD guidelines, which provide that food stamps don't count as income. And it wouldn't accept the notarized letter from Schaw's father because the letter wasn't a legally enforceable guarantee that the monthly support would continue. The Board therefore rejected Schaw's application. It did, however, indicate that it would reconsider if the familial support took the form of a trust or an annuity.

         Shortly thereafter, Schaw's attorney, Rebecca Bell, contacted Strawn to explain that a trust wouldn't work because it could jeopardize Schaw's ability to receive government benefits. When Strawn then suggested an annuity, Bell explained that she didn't handle annuities but knew financial advisors who did, and Strawn took that to mean that Bell would discuss the annuity option with Schaw. Strawn then sent Schaw a "Letter of Intent" explaining the conditions he needed to meet in order to qualify. One of those requirements was that he "[p]rovide documentation for [an] Annuity Plan, (for minimum of five years), as verification of monthly support provided by [his] Father." Later, Schaw (through his aunt, Susan Hale) sent an email to Habitat inquiring as to the status of his application. George Rusaw, Habitat's president and CEO, responded that Schaw needed to provide "legally codified" evidence of the familial support and that "the notarized letter from [Schaw's] father [was] legally insufficient."

         B

         Schaw sued Habitat under the Fair Housing Amendments Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f), bringing two separate claims. First, he asserted that Habitat violated § 3604(f)(3)(B), which requires "reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling." Habitat failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for his disability, Schaw asserted, by refusing to consider his food stamps or familial support as income in lieu of wages earned. Second, Schaw alleged that Habitat's minimum-income requirement has a disparate impact on applicants receiving SSDI.

         After discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on both claims. Habitat accepted the facts alleged by Schaw and conceded (1) that Schaw is disabled within the meaning of the Act, (2) that Schaw asked Habitat to consider his food stamps and familial support as supplemental income, and (3) that Habitat refused to consider the food stamps and the familial support-other than in the form of a trust or annuity-as income for purposes of his application. Habitat disputed, however, that the accommodation that Schaw requested was "reasonable" within the meaning of the Act.

         Shortly after the parties filed their motions, Schaw moved for leave to amend his complaint, seeking to clarify the effect that a trust or annuity would have on his government benefits. At the time he filed the complaint, Schaw believed that a trust or annuity would render him ineligible for SSDI benefits. He then learned that while a trust or annuity wouldn't affect his SSDI, it could risk his eligibility for other needs-based assistance, such as Medicare. Because the district court didn't believe that these changes would affect its analysis as to the relevant questions of law, it declined to address the motion for leave to amend before ruling on the summary-judgment motions.

         The district court granted Habitat's motion for summary judgment. The court didn't address the "reasonable[ness]" of Schaw's request, concluding instead that the accommodation wasn't "necessary" within the meaning of the Act because it "went solely to his financial condition-not his disability." The court also concluded that summary judgment was appropriate because Schaw had failed to attempt in good faith to take advantage of Habitat's proposed "alternative accommodation"-namely, to have his father set up familial support in the form of a trust or annuity. As to Schaw's second claim, the court determined that he had failed to provide any evidence that Habitat's requirements had a disparate impact on SSDI recipients. This appeal followed.

         II

         The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 exists "to prohibit discrimination based on handicap and familial status." Schwarz v. City of Treasure Island, 544 F.3d 1201, 1212 (11th Cir. 2008). As relevant here, discrimination includes refusing "to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a disabled] person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling." 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B).

         To prevail on a failure-to-accommodate claim, a plaintiff must prove (1) that he is disabled, (2) that he requested a "reasonable accommodation," (3) that the requested accommodation was "necessary to afford [him an] equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling," and (4) that the defendant refused to make the requested accommodation. Hunt v. Aimco Props., L.P., 814 F.3d 1213, 1225–26 (11th Cir. 2016). The first and last elements are undisputed in this case-no one here disputes that Schaw is disabled or that Habitat refused to accommodate his request that it consider his supplemental sources of income. Accordingly, we focus on the middle two elements-whether the accommodation that Schaw requested was "reasonable" and whether it was "necessary to afford [him] an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling." Id. at 1225. The district court ...


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