Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 19, 2019

Fed. Dist. Court in PA Refuses to Grant Summary Judgement on FHA and ADA Claims Involving Sober Living House

This post was authored by Amy Lavine, Esq. 

The federal district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania refused to grant summary judgment for either side in a recent decision involving zoning restrictions on a sober living house. Sunlight of the Spirit House had filed suit against the Borough of North Wales and its zoning hearing board, claiming that they had violated the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to grant a reasonable accommodation that would allow more than three unrelated people to reside at its residential property. Because there were disputed issues of genuine material fact, however, the district court ruled that neither of the parties was entitled to summary judgment.


Sunlight of the Spirit House was a nonprofit corporation created to provide sober housing for people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. It acquired a five-bedroom home in the Borough of North Wales and sought to use it for this purpose. The property was located in an “R-C Residential” zoning district, however, which was limited to “family” dwellings. Under the definitions in ordinance, this meant that no more than three unrelated persons could live in the house together unless the requirements for a special exception were satisfied. In particular, the ordinance provided that “the Zoning Hearing Board shall grant a special exception after ascertaining that the dwelling unit has adequate off-street parking facilities, living space, indoor plumbing, and operat[es] as a single, nonprofit and non-transient housekeeping unit [with] facilities to do their cooking on the premises which constitute a functional family equivalent…” The definition of “functional family equivalent” further specified that this encompassed  “[p]ersons living and cooking together as a single, nonprofit and non-transient housekeeping unit and having facilities to do their cooking on the premises.”


Sunlight of the Spirit House informed the borough that it intended to use the property for sober housing for three to ten residents, but it was initially granted a certificate of occupancy for only “three unrelated persons.” It later submitted a request for a special exception to increase the permitted occupancy to ten individuals, but the borough denied this request as well. Although the borough had received primarily negative comments from nearby residents about the occupancy increase, the official reason for its decision was that residents of Sunlight of the Spirit House would not meet the criteria to qualify as a “functional family equivalent.” In particular, residents at the sober house would not be “non-transient” because there was no lease requirement and they could live at the premises for any period of time so long as they complied with the house rules. The zoning hearing board decision also reflected concerns that there was insufficient parking for so many tenants, that Sunlight of Spirit House might not be operating as a “nonprofit” because its owners held equity in the real property, and that allowance of the special exception would generally be against the public interest and detrimental to nearby property owners.


On review before the federal district court for Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the court first explained that the FHA and ADA prohibit discrimination in the sale or rental of housing on the basis of disability, which includes both drug addiction and alcoholism where the addiction substantially impairs a major life activity. Claims under these statutes may allege intentional discrimination, disparate impact, or lack of reasonable accommodation, and in this case, Sunlight of the Spirit House raised intentional discrimination and reasonable accommodation challenges.


Regarding its claim of intentional discrimination, Sunlight of the Spirit House argued that the borough and the zoning hearing board “had a duty to put aside the impermissible prejudices of those in opposition” to its permit application, but that instead they had been clearly influenced by those prejudices in denying the special exception. Although the borough defendants responded that their decision was based on legitimate and non-discriminatory criteria in the zoning ordinance, the court noted that it was unnecessary to show any hostile motive to prove intentional discrimination, and in the context of strong discriminatory public opposition, a decision could become “tainted with discriminatory intent even if the decision-makers personally have no strong views on the matter.” At this point in the proceedings, however, the court couldn’t grant either party’s motion for summary judgment on this issue, as the record contained evidence that was favorable to both Sunlight of the Spirit House and to the borough defendants and which, if accepted by a factfinder, could justify a verdict for either party.


Sunlight of the Spirit House asserted in its second challenge that the zoning hearing board failed to properly consider its request for a reasonable accommodation to be treated as a “family” or a “functional family equivalent.” In support of this point it emphasized its expert testimony regarding the “necessity” of housing more than three individuals as well as its promise to limit the availability of parking for its residents. The borough defendants countered that the evidence failed to show that an accommodation was necessary, because residents would still have an opportunity to use and enjoy the property, and they claimed that they did in fact consider the requested accommodation but ultimately found it unreasonable due to parking congestion. The court found that summary was also inappropriate on this claim and explained its reasoning under the Third Circuit’s burden-shifting analysis applied to reasonable accommodation cases. Under this rule, the initial burden is on the plaintiff to demonstrate that the requested accommodations are necessary to provide an equal opportunity for disabled persons to use and enjoy a dwelling, and the burden then shifts to the defendant to show that such accommodations are unreasonable. To grant summary judgment, a court must be satisfied that there no genuine issues of material fact regarding both the necessity of the requested accommodations and whether such accommodations would be unreasonable. In this case, however, the court found that genuine issues of material fact remained as to both of these issues.


As to necessity, Sunlight of the Spirit House relied on expert testimony that the “optimal” environment for sober houses required seven to ten residents, but the borough presented testimony from its own expert witness that sober houses can function with as few as three residents, with five to eight being optimal. There were similar issues of fact as to the reasonableness of Sunlight of Spirit House’s requested accommodation, as the borough defendants had introduced a parking study showing that ten residents would exceed capacity, and although Sunshine of the Spirit House had offered to restrict parking to its residents, the zoning hearing board asserted that its parking concerns were based on visitors as well as residents. The zoning hearing board also claimed that the accommodation was unreasonable because allowing ten residents would “fundamentally alter the nature of the zoning program” in that the district was intended only for families and equivalent residential uses, and it relied on a financial analysis showing that Sunshine of the Spirit House failed to meet the “nonprofit” criteria of the “functional family equivalent” definition, as well as testimony establishing its failure to meet the “non-transient” criteria. Sunshine of the Spirit House raised genuine issues of material fact, however, by emphasizing that the zoning ordinance did not provide specific definitions for the terms “nonprofit” or “transient.” As the court explained, because Sunshine of the Spirit House was legally registered as a nonprofit corporation and because residents could still be “non-transient” in the absence of a traditional lease, a reasonable factfinder might conclude that Sunshine of the Spirit House was sufficiently “nonprofit” and “non-transient” to qualify as a “functional family equivalent.” In light of these various disputed material facts, neither of the parties was entitled to summary judgment.


Sunlight of the Spirit House, Inc. v Borough of North Wales, 2019 WL 233883 (ED PA 1/15/2019).

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