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CASON v. ROCHESTER HOUSING AUTHORITY

August 6, 1990

DAISY CASON, DEBBIE DOE, AND BETTY ROE, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL PERSONS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ROCHESTER HOUSING AUTHORITY, THOMAS F. MCHUGH, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE ROCHESTER HOUSING AUTHORITY, AND DONNA SMITH, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS HOUSING ASSISTANT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Larimer, District Judge.

DECISION AND ORDER

For over two hundred years our Country has prospered under the principle that all men and women should have an equal opportunity to enjoy "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

There was a time when the disabled did not have the same opportunities and were relegated to a kind of second class status in employment, housing and transportation. That circumstance was caused more by the community's misinformation and thoughtlessness than by the individual's actual disabling condition. Much has been done to eliminate this situation but it would be simplistic to believe that problems do not remain. Public agencies must be especially vigilant to protect the disabled from all forms of discrimination — intentional as well as benign discrimination caused by the public's perception of what is "best" for the disabled.

This case revolves around claims that the Rochester Housing Authority ("Authority") discriminates against disabled applicants for public housing. Three applicants who have physical and mental disabilities and whose applications for public housing were denied, commenced this action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of themselves and a class of similarly situated applicants.

Because I believe that the Authority uses eligibility criteria for public housing that tend to discriminate against those with handicaps and because I believe those requirements cause the Authority to consider handicapped applicants by a different standard than so-called able-bodied applicants, the eligibility standards are in clear violation of federal law and must be struck down.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

One of the plaintiffs is a 31 year-old woman who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic and the other two are elderly women, each of whom suffers from various physical handicaps and one of whom has also been diagnosed as schizophrenic. In spite of their handicaps, plaintiffs contend that they meet all of the legitimate eligibility requirements and that the denial of their application was based on an impermissible evaluation of their disabilities.

The matter was originally before me on plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and for class certification. At that initial appearance on the preliminary injunction motion, the parties agreed to consolidate the hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction with trial on the merits as to some of the disputed issues. The Court gave the parties leave to supplement the record concerning any disputed factual issues and the matter has now been submitted to the Court for decision.

The complaint charges the Authority with several discriminatory practices in its application process. Plaintiffs claim that the Authority imposes an arbitrary and subjective "ability to live independently" standard in determining whether to approve an application for public housing by a disabled applicant. Plaintiffs claim that this standard violates several federal statutes and current federal regulations that were adopted concerning fair housing and the handicapped. The Authority's application process violates federal law because it authorizes and condones detailed inquiries into the nature and scope of the applicant's disabling condition and because it requires, in some cases, that the applicant release confidential medical information. Plaintiffs also claim that the Authority fails to give adequate and proper notice of actions taken on housing applications.

FACTS

The eligibility standards for public housing controlled by the Authority are set forth in the Rochester Housing Authority Rental and Occupancy Manual, § 124 at pp. 17-18, The Manual was promulgated in May, 1988. The "Standards for Tenant Selection Criteria" allow consideration of the following:

  a) an applicant's ability to live independently,
  or to live independently with minimal aid;
  b) an applicant's past performance in meeting
  financial obligations, especially rent, unless
  good cause can be shown for non-payment of rent;
  c) a record of disturbance of neighbors,
  destruction of property or of living or habits at
  prior residences which may adversely affect the
  health, safety and of other tenants (sic);
  d) a history of criminal activity involving
  crimes of physical violence to persons or
  property, or other criminal acts which would
  adversely affect the health, safety, and welfare
  of other tenants.

Plaintiffs challenge only the standard relating to the "ability to live independently" and the Authority's inquiries and procedures utilized to make that determination.

The "ability to live independently" is defined in the Manual as follows:

  Ability to live independently shall mean that an
  applicant is able to perform those basic
  functions of adult living for and by him/her
  self. These activities include: ability to
  understand and to sign contracts and legal
  agreements, ability to perform basic housekeeping
  and personal care; ability to perform necessary
  daily activities ability to understand and
  conform to applicable standards of safety. (sic)

The facts relating to the procedures utilized by the Authority in reviewing and assessing applications are largely undisputed and are set forth in the record by affidavit and deposition testimony. The Authority classifies all applicants for housing into two general categories. Into the first category fall families. Individual applicants, be they elderly or handicapped, are lumped into the second.

All individual applicants undergo an in-home evaluation, performed by an employee of the Authority. Prospective tenants in this category also are asked to complete a questionnaire, which contains many of the questions challenged in this action as discriminatory and intrusive. Each individual applicant signs a form consenting to the release of otherwise confidential medical information, although that information is not obtained in all cases.

The Authority employee who reviews the application then makes a subjective determination, based on her/his observations of the applicant and the answers to the questionnaire, whether circumstances exist to justify further inquiry into the applicant's ability to live independently in public housing. If such an investigation is deemed necessary, the application is referred to a social worker, who is in some cases employed by the Monroe County Health Department. In some instances, the social worker conducts a nursing evaluation, during which a variety of specific questions concerning the applicant's disability, personal hygiene and ability to live independently are asked.

Based on all this information, the Authority then makes a decision to accept or reject the application. In many instances concerning applications from handicapped individuals, the decision to deny housing is specifically based on the applicant's perceived inability to "live independently." There were no reported rejections of non-handicapped applicants for this reason.

Plaintiffs allege that the Authority denied their applications for housing solely on the ...


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