A Court Case Regarding Senior Communities and Wheelchair Use
On June 25, 2020, the court entered a consent decree in United States v. Heritage Senior Living, LLC (E. D. Pa.). The complaint which was filed on May 13, 2020, alleged that the defendants engaged in unlawful discrimination by creating and implementing a series of discriminatory tenant occupancy and eligibility policies and practices that exclude persons with disabilities. The complaint alleged that the defendants, who are the owners and operators of Traditions of Hanover, a senior living facility, violated the Fair Housing Act by, inter alia, enacting a policy that required residents who use wheelchairs to transfer from their wheelchairs into a dining room chair, enacting a policy that required residents who used motorized and non-motorized wheelchairs to pay a non-refundable deposit, and requiring residents to sign a lease that imposes conditions such as requiring an initial physical assessment as a requirement of tenancy and potential eviction if a resident develops certain health conditions. In addition, the complaint alleged that the defendants provided transportation as an amenity and that until 2013, that transportation was inaccessible to people who used wheelchairs in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Under the consent order, defendants will pay a minimum of $250,000 and a maximum of $325,000 into a settlement fund to compensate residents and prospective residents who were harmed by these policies. Defendants will also pay a $55,000 civil penalty to the United States. In addition, defendants will attend fair housing training, appoint a Fair Housing Act compliance officer at Traditions and other senior living facilities, and will implement new resident policies, including a new reasonable accommodation policy and a new motorized wheelchair policy.
Case Open Date: Wednesday, May 13, 2020
Case Name: United States v. Heritage Senior Living, LLC (E.D. Pa.)
Tags: discrimination; fair housing act;
Industry Code: None
Component: Civil Rights Division
Civil Rights – Housing and Civil Enforcement Section
Case Documents: Complaint – United States v. Heritage Senior Living, LLC (E.D. Pa.)
Settlement – United States v. Heritage Senior Living, LLC (E.D. Pa.)
For any property that is covered by the Fair Housing Act, a policy or practice that places an additional burden (whether it be physical, financial, etc.) on a disabled resident because of that individual’s disability is a violation of the law. In this case, the Department of Justice alleged that this senior community did not permit residents to use their wheelchairs in the dining room and to pay an additional deposit for the use of wheelchairs, presumably due to potential damage to walls and flooring. This practice would be akin to charging a deposit for an assistance animal, the reason being that the person would not have the animal (or in this case, the wheelchair) if not for a disability. If the property had a policy that permitted charges for damage caused by negligent or reckless use of a wheelchair (motorized or non), this likely would not have been viewed as a violation. However, because the property allegedly collected those monies upfront in the form of a non-refundable deposit, it negatively impacted all wheelchair users because of their disability.
The other significant allegation involves Defendant’s requirement that residents submit to a physical examination and then be subject to termination if certain health conditions develop during their tenancy. The practice of requiring a physical examination is not unheard of for properties that provide in-house medical services in order to determine which services may be necessary during the resident’s tenancy. However, the results of that examination or any subsequent mental or physical condition cannot have an effect on a resident’s tenancy. The only requirement is that a tenant meets the terms of his or her Lease/Community Rules, with or without assistance, in order to continue residing in his or her unit.
It is recommended that all properties, but particularly senior communities, review their policies and practices regarding wheelchair use, the concept of living “independently,” and reasonable accommodations for residents whose health may be declining. The legal obligations related to these issues are not easy or obvious, so if you have questions, consult a fair housing attorney.