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Lloyd v. Presby's Inspired Life

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 1, 2017

DOLORES LLOYD, Plaintiff,
v.
PRESBY'S INSPIRED LIFE, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, J.

         This is a case of alleged unlawful discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3619. Plaintiff Dolores Lloyd (“Plaintiff”), proceeding pro se, brings this action against Presby's Inspired Life (“Presby's”), the owner of the property where Plaintiff formerly resided, and the property manager of the property, Fatimah Bey (“Bey, ” and together with Presby's, “Defendants”). Defendants filed an answer denying the allegations, deposed Plaintiff, and moved for summary judgment on all three claims. Plaintiff opposes the motion. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendants' motion for summary judgment, and grant leave for Defendants to file a second motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f)(2)-(3).

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff is a former tenant at Interfaith House (“Interfaith”), a building owned by Defendant Presby's. See Second Am. Compl. at 3, 13, ECF No. 10 [hereinafter SAC].[2]Plaintiff became a resident of Interfaith on June 4, 2009. See Id. at 3, 6; Defs.' Mem. Law. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. at 3, ECF No. 19 [hereinafter Defs.' Mem.]. According to Plaintiff, she was evicted from Interfaith in May 2015, see SAC at 13 ¶ 6, and left Interfaith in June 2015, see Id. at 6 ¶ 6.[3]

         In her Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Bey, the property manager of Interfaith, (1) discriminated against Plaintiff because she is a Jehovah's Witness; (2) failed to provide Plaintiff with a handicapped- accessible apartment, which Plaintiff required to accommodate her permanent physical disability; and (3) retaliated against Plaintiff after she filed religious discrimination complaints with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission (“the PHRC”). Defendants vigorously deny all of Plaintiff's allegations relating to the alleged religious discrimination, failure to accommodate Plaintiff's disability, and retaliation. See Defs.' Mem. at 3-4. However, Defendants admit that Plaintiff filed complaints with HUD and the PHRC, and they have filed copies of documentation related to those complaints. See id.

         With respect to Plaintiff's religious discrimination claim, she alleges that Bey (1) prohibited Jehovah's Witnesses, including Plaintiff, from hosting religious or personal meetings in the main lobby, yard, or kitchen, while permitting tenants of other religious faiths to host such meetings; (2) required tenants to attend “mandatory” political meetings, even though the Jehovah's Witness faith prohibits participation in politics; (3) gave preferential treatment in housing to non-Jehovah's Witness tenants; and (4) refused to allow Plaintiff to leave religious information in the lobby, while allowing other non-Jehovah's Witness tenants to leave their religious information in the lobby. See SAC at 2-6. Plaintiff alleges that she asked to hold a religious service in the main lobby in 2010 after a friend's mother passed away, and Bey refused the request. See Id. at 5 ¶ 4. In contrast, Plaintiff alleges, other religious groups were permitted to hold Sunday service meetings and Bible study groups at Interfaith on a regular basis. See Id. at 4 ¶ 1. Plaintiff also alleges that Bey stated over the intercom system that Plaintiff should place her religious magazines “in the trash where they belong.” Id. at 6 ¶ 4.

         With respect to her reasonable accommodations claim, Plaintiff alleges that she originally applied for a large one-bedroom, handicapped-accessible apartment in 2008. See Id. at 2-3. According to Plaintiff, she accepted an efficiency apartment in 2009 because Bey promised Plaintiff that she would be transferred to a handicapped-accessible apartment as soon as one became available. See Id. at 3 ¶ 6. Plaintiff claims that her physicians sent letters to Bey confirming Plaintiff's permanent physical disability in 2009 and 2013. See Id. at 3 ¶ 4. Despite this documentation, Plaintiff claims, Bey refused to transfer Plaintiff to an accessible apartment, in part because Plaintiff is a Jehovah's Witness.[4] See Id. at 3 ¶ 3.

         According to Plaintiff, she filed complaints with HUD and the PHRC in August 2012 relating to Bey's discrimination against her.[5] See Id. at 6. Plaintiff claims that following her filing of the complaints with HUD and the PHRC, Bey and other, unnamed staff members began retaliating against her. See SAC at 7 ¶ 4. According to Plaintiff, the retaliation included, inter alia, Bey and other Interfaith staff members (1) entering Plaintiff's apartment and damaging her property, including breaking Plaintiff's water heater and faucet, spreading chemicals, garbage, and feces on Plaintiff's belongings, and contaminating Plaintiff's food; (2) attempting to poison Plaintiff; (3) intercepting and stealing Plaintiff's mail and medication; and (4) sabotaging Plaintiff's application for affordable housing, causing Plaintiff to be evicted from the building. See Id. at 7-14. Plaintiff claims that she sustained numerous injuries as a result of Bey's creation of unsanitary conditions in Plaintiff's apartment and attempt to poison her, including ring worms, breathing problems, and injuries requiring open heart surgery. See Id. at 10-11.

         In May 2014, according to Plaintiff, Bey withheld documents relating to Plaintiff's application for annual recertification for a housing subsidy from HUD, and then failed to submit Plaintiff's application in a timely manner, causing Plaintiff to lose her HUD subsidy.[6] See Id. at 13 ¶¶ 1-5. Plaintiff alleges that after she lost her subsidy, Bey raised Plaintiff's rent to the full market rate, even though Bey knew that Plaintiff could pay only 30 percent of the market rate for the apartment without the HUD subsidy. See Id. at 13 ¶ 4. Plaintiff could not pay the new rental rate, and, as a result, she was evicted in May 2015. See Id. at 13 ¶ 6.

         On September 30, 2014, HUD issued a Letter of Findings in response to Plaintiff's complaint alleging religious discrimination and failure to accommodate Plaintiff's disability (the “HUD Findings Letter”). See HUD Findings Letter, Sept. 30, 2014, Defs.' Mot. Ex. C, ECF No. 19-5. In the letter, HUD stated that, following an investigation, it made a determination of no probable cause with respect to all of the allegations in Plaintiff's HUD complaint. See Id. In response to the HUD Findings Letter, Plaintiff submitted a timely request for review, which HUD addressed in a final letter of determination dated May 20, 2015 (the “HUD Final Letter”).[7] See HUD Letter of Determination, May 20, 2015, Defs.' Mot. Ex. F, ECF No. 19-8. In the final letter, HUD noted that Plaintiff asserted that the HUD investigator did not properly investigate the complaint and did not talk to all of Plaintiff's witnesses. See Id. at 3. HUD found that, while Plaintiff did note on her initial housing application that she had a physical disability and received Social Security Disability Income, there was no evidence that Plaintiff had requested a reasonable accommodation because of her physical disability when she asked to move to a different apartment. See Id. at 3-4. Instead, Plaintiff provided other reasons that she was dissatisfied with her apartment and wanted to move, including wanting to move to a higher floor to receive more sunlight. See Id. Accordingly, HUD sustained the investigator's findings.[8] Id. at 4.

         On April 17, 2015, Plaintiff filed a second complaint with the PHRC, alleging that Bey retaliated against her in response to her HUD discrimination complaint. See PHRC Compl., Defs.' Mot. Ex. E, ECF No. 19-7. Plaintiff also filed a similar complaint with HUD on the same date. See HUD Compl., Defs.' Mot. Ex. G, ECF No. 19-9. Plaintiff's PHRC complaint was resolved in a letter dated August 27, 2015, in which the PHRC dismissed the complaint after finding that “the facts of the case do not establish that probable cause exists to credit the allegations of unlawful discrimination.” See PHRC Letter, Aug. 27, 2015, ECF No. 15-2. The parties have not provided any information to the Court regarding the resolution, if any, of Plaintiff's April 17, 2015, HUD complaint.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed this action on December 31, 2015. ECF No. 1. The Court granted in forma pauperis status on January 6, 2016, ECF No. 2, and Plaintiff's complaint was filed the same day, ECF No. 3. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on February 6, 2016. ECF No. 4.

         On April 25, 2016, Defendants filed a motion for a more definite statement. ECF No. 7. On May 17, 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion for leave to file another amended complaint. ECF No. 9. Following a hearing on Plaintiff's motion for leave to file the Second Amended Complaint, the Court granted Plaintiff's motion. ECF No. 13. The Court also ordered Defendants to file a response to the Second Amended Complaint, take Plaintiff's deposition, and file a motion for summary judgment. See Id. In the same order, the Court stated that it would construe Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint to allege three causes of action: (1) religious discrimination; (2) retaliation; and (3) failure to accommodate Plaintiff's disability. See Id. at 1 n.1.

         On August 12, 2016, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 19. On August 26, 2016, the Court held a status conference to determine what discovery Plaintiff would need to respond to Defendants' motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 20. Following that conference, the Court ordered Defendants to provide to Plaintiff: (1) a list of all tenants who were evicted after their HUD subsidiary re-certification materials were not timely submitted between the date of Plaintiff's eviction and one year prior to that date; and (2) a copy of Plaintiff's most recent HUD subsidiary re-certification documents.[9] See ECF No. 21. The Court also set deadlines for the filing of Plaintiff's opposition to Defendants' motion for summary judgment and Defendants' reply in further support of their motion for summary judgment, and permitted Plaintiff to file a flash drive in support of her claims. See id.

         Plaintiff filed an opposition to Defendants' motion for summary judgment on October 6, 2016, together with a flash drive containing several video files. ECF No. 22. Defendants have not filed a reply. The Court is now ready to rule on the motion.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is awarded under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sweeney, 689 F.3d 288, 292 (3d Cir. 2012). “A motion for summary judgment will not be defeated by ‘the mere existence' of some disputed facts, but will be denied when there is a genuine issue of material fact.” Am. Eagle Outfitters v. Lyle & Scott Ltd., 584 F.3d 575, 581 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986)). A fact is “material” if proof of its existence or non-existence might affect the outcome of the litigation, and a dispute is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         In undertaking this analysis, the court views all facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. “After making all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor, there is a genuine issue of material fact if a reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party.” Pignataro v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 593 F.3d 265, 268 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Reliance Ins. Co. v. Moessner, 121 F.3d 895, 900 (3d Cir. 1997)). While the moving party bears the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, meeting this obligation shifts the burden to the nonmoving party, who must “set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.

         A document filed pro se is to be “liberally construed” and “a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). In addition, when considering a motion in a pro se plaintiff's proceedings, a court must “apply the applicable law, irrespective of whether a pro se litigant has mentioned it by name.” Holley v. Dep't of Veteran Affairs, 165 F.3d 244, 247-48 (3d Cir. 1999). However, on a motion for summary judgment, “a pro se plaintiff is not relieved of his obligation under Rule 56 to point to competent evidence in the record that is capable of refuting a defendant's motion for summary judgment.” Ray v. Fed. Ins. Co., No. 05-2507, 2007 WL 1377645, at *3 (E.D. Pa. May 10, 2007) (Robreno, J.). “[M]erely because a non-moving party is proceeding pro se does not relieve him of the obligation under Rule 56(e) to produce evidence that raises a genuine issue of material fact.” Boykins v. Lucent Techs., Inc., 78 F.Supp.2d 402, 408 (E.D. Pa. 2000) (Robreno, J.).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Pursuant to the Court's June 13, 2016, order, Defendants have construed Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint to allege three causes of action under the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3619: (1) failure to accommodate Plaintiff's disability; (2) religious discrimination; and (3) retaliation. In their motion for summary judgment, Defendants argue that each of these three causes of action fails as a matter of law. See Defs.' Mem. Defendants also argue that the statute of limitations bars Plaintiff's religious discrimination claim to the extent that claim is based on events that occurred in 2010. See Id. at 9.

         A. Failure to Accommodate

         The Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of, inter alia, race, gender, and national origin. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3619. The FHA applies to all dwellings, including privately owned dwellings such as the one at issue in this case. In 1988, Congress passed the Fair Housing Amendments Act (“FHAA”), 42 U.S.C. § 3601, which extended the coverage of the FHA to include people with disabilities. See 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(2) (making it unlawful “[t]o discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such a dwelling, because of a handicap”). Discrimination is defined to include “a refusal to make 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B).

         In the Third Circuit, a court evaluating an FHAA reasonable accommodations claim considers three factors: “whether the requested accommodation is ‘(1) reasonable and (2) necessary to (3) afford handicapped persons an equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing.'” Lapid-Laurel, LLC v. Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, 284 F.3d 442, 457 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Bryant Woods Inn, Inc. v. Howard Cnty., 124 F.3d 597, 603 (4th Cir. 1997)). A “plaintiff bears the initial burden of showing that the requested accommodation is necessary to afford handicapped persons an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” Id. If the plaintiff succeeds, “the burden shifts to the defendant to show that the requested accommodation is unreasonable.” Id. Accordingly, in order to evaluate a motion for summary judgment on a reasonable accommodations claim, a court must “determine whether there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding (1) whether the accommodations that [the plaintiff] requested were necessary to afford handicapped persons an equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing; and, if so (2) whether the accommodations requested were unreasonable.” Id. at 459.

         Here, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants failed to move her to a one-bedroom, handicapped-accessible apartment, which Plaintiff claims she needed to accommodate her permanent physical disability. See SAC at 2-4. Plaintiff alleges that two of her physicians sent letters to Defendants to confirm her disability, in 2009 and again in 2013. See Id. at 3 ¶ 4.

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot demonstrate that Defendants have failed to reasonably accommodate her disability as a matter of law. See Defs.' Mem. at 6. Defendants claim that they did not fail to make the requested accommodation because they never received a verification from Plaintiff's doctor that accommodation was necessary. See Id. According to Defendants, Plaintiff admits that she never saw the alleged verification. See Id. Defendants conclude that because Plaintiff ...


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