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Spieth v. Bucks County Housing Authority

January 28, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anita B. Brody, J.


I. Introduction

On August 19, 2008, Patricia Spieth ("Spieth") filed a second amended pro se complaint against the Bucks County Housing Authority ("BCHA") and four BCHA employees, Mr. Donald E. Grondahl ("Grondahl"), Ms. Bonnie Bascio ("Bascio"), Ms. Christina Stuart ("Stuart"), and Ms. Patricia Bonatsos ("Bonatsos"). Spieth alleges violations of (1) "Section 8 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 (42 U.S.C. 1437f)," (2) "Regulations 24 Code of Federal Regulations part 5; 24 CFR part 982," (3) "Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq.," (4) "section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973," and (5) "Section 804f3B of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 as amended by the Fair Housing Act of 1988." On September 5, 2008, the Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss Spieth's Complaint for Failure to State a Claim and/or Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies*fn1 under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b).

II. Background


The BCHA accepts Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") funds to provide low-rent housing for qualified applicants. By accepting HUD funds, the BCHA agrees to comply with all HUD regulations and the United States Housing Act of 1937. The BCHA provides housing vouchers for low-income applicants to lease privately owned residences. Malinda Roberts, Director of Public Housing, Philadelphia Area Office. Audit Report of The Bucks County Housing Authorities Tenant-Based Section 8 Program, November 13, 2003 (available at Typically, under the Housing Act as amended by 42 U.S.C. § 1437 (the "Housing Act"), a qualified applicant will pay rent based on his or her income and then a public housing authority ("PHA") pays a private landlord the difference between the tenant's contribution and the rent agreed upon between the landlord and the PHA.

The Housing Act also establishes a rent ceiling: a PHA generally may not require a tenant family to pay more than 30% of its monthly adjusted income as rent. 42 U.S.C. § 1437a(a)(1)(A); McDowell v. Phila. Housing Auth., 423 F.3d 233, 236 (3d Cir. 2005). HUD has interpreted rent to include the "reasonable cost of utilities," so PHAs must award monthly rebates (calculated based on the utility company's rates, climate, size of the unit, and other factors) to tenants who pay utility companies directly. McDowell, 423 F.3d at 236. If a tenant's utility bill exceeds the utility rebate, the tenant must make up the difference; if the rebate exceeds the bill, the tenant can keep the difference. Id. (internal citations omitted).

Under HUD regulation 24 CFR § 982.503, HUD has the discretion to approve higher than normal rental rates, referred to as exception rates, for certain units. HUD may approve exception rent if HUD determines that a voucher holder cannot locate housing "bearing rents within the established Fair Market Rent (FMR) standards." U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Community Planning Website (available at 24 CFR §§ 982.503(c)(2)(ii) and (c)(4)(i) provide guidelines for when HUD may approve an exception rent:

The HUD Field Office may approve an exception payment standard amount within the upper range if required as a reasonable accommodation for a family that includes a person with disabilities . . . . HUD will only approve an exception payment standard amount (pursuant to paragraph (c)(2) or paragraph (c)(3) of this section) if HUD determines that approval of such higher amount is needed either: (A) To help families find housing outside areas of high poverty, or (B) Because voucher holders have trouble finding housing for lease under the program within the term of the voucher.

Standard payment amounts are based on unit size and range between 90% and 110% of "fair market rents" for the region (as determined by HUD). The upper range for exception rents is between 110% and 120% of fair market rent. HUD's regulations indicate that the HUD Field Office has the "sole discretion" to approve exception payments. 24 CFR § 982.503 (c)(i).

B. Facts*fn2

In July 2003, Spieth received a public housing voucher and list of available apartments from BCHA. Spieth suffers from a medical condition that requires her to reside at a property that is equipped to handle installation of a medically prescribed sauna. In August 2003, Spieth found a property equipped to handle a sauna in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, but when Spieth consulted with a staff member of the BCHA, she was informed that this particular property was not "rent reasonable." In November 2003, Ms. Laura Palmer (BCHA Assistant Section 8 Coordinator) told Spieth that the Perkasie property was, in fact, rent reasonable. The property, however, was no longer available and this delay cost Spieth "two months and two moves." Additionally, when completing the voucher worksheet for the Perkasie property, Ms. Palmer "failed to allow Exception Utilities or request Exception Rent each of which were specifically requested by the Plaintiff, who at the time was an elderly, disabled medically documented individual." Again in November 2003, Spieth requested exception rent and utilities in a letter addressed to defendant BCHA employee Bonnie Bascio and "Mrs. Lynn Pietrouchie." Spieth also requested "another voucher extension as approved by Ms. Dorothy Brown HUD Headquarters." It is unclear from the complaint what a "voucher extension" is, or if this request was granted or denied. In late November 2003, Spieth asked that her son be permitted to participate in a conference call regarding "Request Tenancy Approval," but Ms. Palmer denied this request as well.

On December 10, 2003, Spieth again wrote to Ms. Palmer requesting exception rent under 24 CFR § 982.503(c)(2)(ii) as a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability. In this letter Spieth also informed Ms. Palmer of a property in Sellersville, Pennsylvania, whose owner ("Campbell") had approved Speith's housing voucher and the required wiring for the sauna. On January 12, 2004, Ms. Palmer informed Spieth that the rent and utilities for the Sellersville property were "over by $7.00" and that Ms. Palmer was going to ask Campbell to reduce his rent by $7.00. Campbell refused to do so. Spieth and Campbell reviewed the paperwork and discovered an error that Ms. Palmer had made. On January 13, 2004, Spieth again wrote to Ms. Palmer about the Sellersville property and about receiving exception rent and exception utilities. On January 14, Campbell faxed "lease documents" regarding a Quakertown, Pennsylvania property, which he agreed to lease to Spieth based upon her housing voucher. In February 2004, when Spieth received a notice from BCHA regarding the portion of rent she was required to pay, there was no allowance for exception rent or exception utilities. Spieth currently resides in the Quakertown property.

Spieth claims that she first requested exception rent and exception utilities in November of 2003 and continued to periodically renew this request, but was ignored or "not acknowledged." In October 2005, Spieth was re-certified for housing assistance. At that time, she informed Ms. Christina Stuart of the additional expenses generated by the electricity needed for her medically required sauna and provided her with documentation. Ms. Stuart allegedly did not use this documentation when calculating Spieth's rent. During Spieth's November 2006 re-certification, her total paid medical expenses were again mis-calculated and no one acknowledged her exception rent and exception utility requests. On numerous occasions in 2007, Spieth continued to request "corrections in utility calculations, correct rent adjustments, corrections for excluded medical expenses, and additional consideration for Exception Rent and Exception Utilities." In January 2008, Spieth received a fax from BCHA employee Bonnie Bascio stating that Spieth had received $4709 for medical expenses. Spieth contends that this ...

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