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Lebanon County Housing Authority v. Landeck

February 27, 2009

LEBANON COUNTY HOUSING AUTHORITY, APPELLEE
v.
VERONICA LANDECK, APPELLANT



Appeal from the Judgment entered January 31, 2008 In the Court of Common Pleas of Lebanon County Civil Division, at No. 2006-01289.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cleland, J.

BEFORE: PANELLA, CLELAND, JJ. and MCEWEN, P.J.E.

OPINION

¶ 1 Veronica Lendeck (Tenant)*fn1 appeals the judgment entered January 31, 2008 pursuant to the trial court's orders of December 4, 2007 and December 13, 2007, the latter denying Tenant's post-trial motion. The issue before us is whether, under the federal Fair Housing Act*fn2 (the Act), the trial court mistakenly concluded that Tenant failed to establish a reasonable accommodation defense under the Act and thereby erred in awarding possession of the rental property to the Lebanon County Housing Authority (the Authority).*fn3 Because the trial court erred in its application of the law and its factual findings are not supported by the record, we reverse and remand in part for a new trial.

¶ 2 "To establish a reasonable accommodation defense under the Fair Housing Act, the tenant must demonstrate that (1) she suffered from a 'handicap'[*fn4 ] (or 'disability'), (2) the landlord knew or should have known of the disability, (3) an accommodation of the disability may be necessary to afford the tenant an equal opportunity to use and enjoy her apartment, (4) the tenant requested a reasonable accommodation, and (5) the landlord refused to grant a reasonable accommodation." Douglas v. Kriegsfeld Corporation, 884 A.2d 1109, 1129 (D.C. 2005).*fn5

¶ 3 Our standard of review is as follows:

Our review in a non-jury case is limited to whether the findings of the trial court are supported by competent evidence and whether the trial court committed error in the application of law. We must grant the court's findings of fact the same weight and effect as the verdict of a jury and, accordingly, may disturb the non-jury verdict only if the court's findings are unsupported by competent evidence or the court committed legal error that affected the outcome of the trial. It is not the role of an appellate court to pass on the credibility of witnesses; hence we will not substitute our judgment for that of the factfinder. Thus, the test we apply is "not whether we would have reached the same result on the evidence presented, but rather, after due consideration of the evidence which the trial court found credible, whether the trial court could have reasonably reached its conclusion.

Hollock v. Erie Insurance Exchange, 842 A.2d 409, 413-414 (Pa. Super. 2004) (citations and quotation marks omitted).

¶ 4 An abbreviated procedural and factual history is as follows: On January 29, 1997, Tenant and her late husband entered into a lease agreement with the Authority. N.T., 5/14/2007, at 6. On May 23, 2004, Tenant's husband died after a long battle with cancer. Id. at 125. After her husband's death Tenant received her first citation for a violation of the lease agreement. This citation dealt with housekeeping problems. The Authority worked with Tenant to improve the housekeeping problems, and she was not evicted at that time. Id. at 12, 125. She did not receive any official citations in 2005, although Javier Torres, a maintenance employee for the Authority, testified the housekeeping problems persisted throughout that year. Id.at 59, 60.

¶ 5 In March, 2006, while preparing for an upcoming inspection, Tenant had a mental "breakdown" and was admitted to Philhaven Hospital.

According to Tenant, her admission to Philhaven and release to her daughter's home came just before the April 12, 2006 inspection. Id. at 128-129. Because of various violations of the lease dealing with poor housekeeping which resulted in a fire hazard,*fn6 Tenant failed the inspection and received a Notice to Quit dated April 27, 2006. At an informal hearing on May 18, 2006, Tenant indicated she was "progressing in her depression," and in light of the circumstances,*fn7 the hearing officer asked the Authority to take Tenant through her apartment and explain what needed improved before a re-inspection on May 30, 2006. N.T., 1/17/2007, at 17-18. The Authority cancelled the meeting scheduled for May 22, 2006, and Tenant could not attend the suggested make-up dates, in part because she was co-planning a memorial service for her husband. N.T., 5/14/2007, at 138. Although some progress had been made by the May 30, 2006 inspection, Tenant ultimately failed this inspection. Id.at 34-35, 139-140.

¶ 6 On July 10, 2006, the date scheduled for the eviction proceeding before a magisterial district judge (district judge), Tenant's newly retained counsel served a request for a reasonable accommodation upon the Authority's counsel. Id. at 108. The hearing proceeded, and the district judge ruled in favor of the Authority and granted the requested eviction. Tenant timely appealed.

¶ 7 Between the time of the district judge's decision and the trial, Tenant provided follow-up documentation to the Authority to support her request for a reasonable accommodation because of her depression. The trial court, however, would not permit submission of any evidence beyond July 10, 2006. Id. at 82-83.

¶ 8 The Act in relevant part reads: "It shall be unlawful to . . . discriminate in the sale or rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any buyer or renter because of a handicap of . . . that buyer or renter." 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(1)(A) (emphasis added). Federal case law has interpreted this section to mean that in determining whether or not the Authority discriminated against Tenant on the basis of handicap, the trial court should have accepted evidence up until the date of the trial. Douglas, 884 A.2d at 1121. "In assessing whether and when [the Authority] knew of [the tenant's] handicap, the court should have considered the date [the tenant] was actually evicted . . . as the FHA provides that unlawful discrimination occurs when a dwelling is denied." ...


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