While the local media is focusing on legislative efforts to overturn the Maryland death penalty and reconcile competing pit bull liability statutes, an important decision on housing discrimination has recently been issued by the Court of Appeals.

Under Maryland law (and, in many circumstances, under federal law), it is unlawful “[t]o refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when the accommodations may be necessary to afford a handicapped individual equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling[.]”  Md. Code Ann., Art. 49B § 22(a)(9).  The language in the state statute correlates closely with language in the federal Fair Housing Act.  See 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B) (stating that “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” is housing discrimination).

Under either statute, housing discrimination will only be found if the particular accommodation requested is “reasonable.”  Reasonableness in this context means that a support can be provided at reasonable cost without excessively burdening other people.  Among many questions that typically arise in proving housing discrimination is which party – the plaintiff or the defendant – bears the burden of proving reasonableness.  Reasonable_Accommodation_206X155

In Board of Directors of Cameron Grove Condominium, II, et al. v. State Comm’n on Human Relations, issued on March 28, 2013, the Court of Appeals decided the question in favor of plaintiffs.  The Court held that in order to prove a housing discrimination case under the state statute, a plaintiff must make a prima facie showing of reasonableness;  once that showing has been made, the burden of proof then shifts to the defendant to prove that the requested accommodation is not reasonable.

This is a win for the disabled, since a prima facie showing is a pretty low bar to meet.  Cameron Grove is interesting for another reason, also.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the federal appeals court responsible for Maryland among other states, has taken the opposite position in adjudicating housing discrimination cases under the federal statute.  See Bryant Woods Inn, Inc. v. Howard County, 124 F.3d 597 (4th Cir. 1997) (stating that “[b]ecause the [Fair Housing Act]’s text evidences no intent to alter normal burdens the plaintiff bears the burden of proving each of these three elements by a preponderance of the evidence”).

The Maryland Court of Appeals is, in almost every case, the final arbiter of the meaning of state statutes, while the federal court system is responsible for interpreting federal statutes.  While it’s not unheard of for courts to reach different conclusions on similar statutory language, it’s quite striking when the language in the state statute so closely mirrors the federal statute.  It’s worth pointing this out, too, because concepts like “the burden of proof” are rarely dealt with on television or in movies, yet the allocation of the burden can be determinative of the outcome of a case.  The plaintiff in Bryant Woods Inn, for example, lost its case, while the plaintiffs in Cameron Grove won theirs.  I’m not accounting for differences in facts here, so the comparison isn’t necessarily fair, but it is interesting.

What was at issue in Cameron Grove?  Two individuals in a condominium complex who suffered from unnamed medical conditions filed suit to require that the condominium association provide them with keys to back and side doors to their respective buildings.  Apparently these doors were closer to a retail area within the complex and the plaintiffs wanted to be able to use those doors when they brought in their groceries.  The condominium argued that it shouldn’t have to give copies of the keys for security reasons and that installing a security code pad at each door would be prohibitively expensive at $19,000.  The association was ordered to pay both plaintiffs a combined total of $35,000, in addition to a civil penalty of $5,000.

Most hardware stores sell keys for something like $4.00.  images