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November 5, 2001
HUD WINS HOUSING FAIRNESS FOR RESIDENTS WITH DISABILITIES
WASHINGTON - Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez today announced that the owners and director of an assisted-living facility in Minnesota violated the Fair Housing Act by requiring tenants who use motorized wheelchairs or scooters to obtain personal liability insurance, under the guise of protecting residents' health and safety.
The owners and director of Country Manor Apartments, located in Sartell, MN, have been ordered to pay $7,500 in damages and $8,000 in civil penalties. Gail Rucks, the facility's Director of Housing; Hollis Helgeson; and, H.H.H. Incorporated, the facility owner at the time of the complaint, were jointly named in the case.
"This ruling sets an important precedent for other facilities nationwide, who were following this case and considering similar requirements," Martinez said. "This Administration will not tolerate the stereotyping or unfair treatment of persons with disabilities."
Daphene Grassi, the plaintiff, said she was pleased with the decision, "I hope this shows others that people who have a disability are thinking human beings and just as capable as others of making a decision. They can't treat us like children and just impose these laws without any input or discussion from the residents."
Country Manor, which includes a 172-bed nursing home, 45 assisted-living units and 155 senior apartments, had argued that the policy promotes the health and safety of the residents by assuring that resources would be available to pay for medical treatment in the event of an injury caused by a motorized wheelchair.
Acting Chief Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) William C. Cregar held that "any connection between a requirement to obtain liability insurance and the promotion of health and safety is tenuous at best," and that liability insurance does not prevent accidents. He found that Country Manor had not established any evidence that operators of motorized wheelchairs pose a substantial risk of harm to themselves or others. HUD ALJ Cregar also held that Country Manor's policy reflected "improper stereotyping" of persons with disabilities and a "'we know best' attitude" that violates the Fair Housing Act.
The ruling stemmed from a complaint filed with HUD by Grassi, who moved to Country Manor in 1997 from Oklahoma to be closer to her daughter in nearby St. Cloud. Grassi cannot stand or walk on her own due to degenerative disc disease that resulted in a surgical fusion of her lower back. She also has diabetes, which resulted in the amputation of two toes on her right foot. Grassi uses an electric wheelchair because she cannot propel a non-motorized wheelchair up a ramp by herself. She lives in a senior apartment and has never been involved in an incident involving her wheelchair at the facility.
Grassi said that filing and following through with the complaint was very difficult because while other residents opposed the policy as well, they were afraid to challenge the management out of fear of eviction or other retaliation, but that it was "a matter of principle."
Judge Cregar awarded the $7,500 in damages to Grassi for emotional distress, finding that Country Manor had tried to pressure her into buying the insurance, and for an "implied threat" of eviction from Rucks, who tried to persuade her to drop her complaint.
The civil penalty order requires Hollis Helgeson and H.H.H. Inc. to pay $5,000 and Rucks to pay $3,000. The ALJ also ordered Country Manor to stop requiring liability insurance for people who use motorized wheelchairs, and prohibited reprisals against Grassi.
The Fair Housing Act, enacted in 1968, was amended in 1988 to outlaw housing discrimination against people with disabilities. It also bars housing discrimination on account of race, color, religion, sex, family status and national origin. The Fair Housing Act covers the sale, rental, financing and advertising of almost all housing in the nation. After a charge of discrimination is filed by HUD, it is heard by an ALJ, unless a party asks that it be heard in federal court.
HUD, like many other federal agencies, has Administrative Law Judges who make independent decisions in administrative law matters before the Department, such as fair housing cases. ALJs have career, nonpolitical appointments with lifetime tenure.
Anyone who believes they have experienced housing discrimination is asked to call HUD's Housing Discrimination Hotline at 1-800-669-9777.