Pools and Summer Reminders: New Liability Claims for Discriminatory Management Guidelines

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July 21, 2016
Terry R. Dowdall
Attorney
Dowdall Law Offices

 

Summer is here again! And the kids have started their seasonal pilgrim- age to the coolest place in the all- age park, the swimming pool. Each year, there is accidental loss of life in private residential pools. Management is not required to provide lifeguards or medical services. As a mandate of federal law (mirrored in the Fair Employment and Housing Act as well), when it comes to common facilities in all age parks, (pools included), parents and guardians are charged with the discretion and power to supervise. This is not a management function. And now, a new case shows that liability can be sought for internal management guidelines passed along to managers from educational course notes!

 

The Basic Rule for Liability Avoidance in a Mobilehome Park 

It is the parents’ responsibility, not management’s, to decide ability to swim and access privileges for minors. Access, hours, and supervision restrictions are illegal under the Federal Fair Housing Amend- ments Act of 1988 (FHAA).1 While narrowly drawn rules may differentially impact children (persons under 18 years of age), these are not advised. The “default setting” is best: the law requires that the parents be vested with exclusive discretion to decide, control and live with their choices for kid’s access and supervision issues. Likewise, scour the rules and regulations (and now, internal management policies, manuals, agreements and memoranda) to eliminate any rule which mentions “children.” Use of the term “children” is a trigger word, no different than use of any other label for a person in a protected class. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) treats children as “small adults” for purposes of scrutinizing rules.

The Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) created a new protected class of “familial status”. In California, the federal courts have addressed this requirements by ruling that “all age” communities may not discriminate against children, no more than management can discriminate against any other protected class.

Federal Requirements and Over-Regulation 

Let’s face it; some parents are not responsible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of all children one to four years old who died from an unin- tentional injury, almost 30% died from drowning. Fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages one to 14 years. The same report reveals that “the fatal drowning rate of African American children ages 5 to 14 is 3.1 times that of white children in the same age range.”

1. E.g., United States v. Plaza Mobile Estates, 273 F.Supp.2d 1084 (C.D. Cal. 2003); Bischoff v. Brittain, No. 2:14-cv-01970-KJM-CKD, United States District Court, E.D. California (May, 2016).

 

Mobilehome park swimming pools are deemed public, and re- quire fencing, postings and related equipment. In years past, it was believed that parkowners could require adult supervision in the swimming pool area, but it is for the parents to decide and control.

State Requirements and Conflict with the FHAA and the FEHA

California, meanwhile, promulgated modifications to Title 24, but apparently did not clear their proposals with any lawyer or the children’s rights lobby. The state mandated sign includes language mandated by Title 24 of the California Code of Regulations, as follows:

“WARNING: NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY Children under the age of 14 shall not use pool without a parent or adult guardian in attendance.”

This language is a prima facie violation of the FHAA protections against discrimination on the basis of familial rights.2 Posting this sign places every operator of a Title 22 swimming pool (that’s us parkowners) in violation of the FHAA. If posted, any aggrieved family member may sue just because it is posted (enforced or not). Since posting this sign exposes a parkowner to liability, what should the parkowner do? First, offer to post the sign which would be consistent with the FHAA:

“WARNING: NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY Children under the age of 14 should not use pool without a parent or adult guardian in attendance; management recommends no one swim alone.”

Despite entreaties made for clarification to resolve this conflict, to both the Department of Housing and Community Development (HUD) and the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), there has been no response. This problem does not lie in an older persons (55+) park, by the way. This is because the “older persons” park is exempt from the familial status requirements. Since a parkowner may entirely exclude children due to the effect of the 55+ regulation, allowing kids at all is a benefit that is not required (total exclusions, pool hours, supervision are all allowable restrictions) all permissible in the “older persons” community at this time.

 

2 . In striking down the legal requirement for signage as a discrimination defense, the central district judge held that " . . . there is nothing magical about the age of 18 or 14 years old if defendants' concerns are for the protection of the health and safety of the children or other residents in using recreational facilities or the swimming pool or riding bicycles. Such concerns could be addressed with the use of rules. Moreover, rather than being connected to such ages, bicycle and pool safety would be better served with a proficiency requirement." U.S. v. Plaza Mobile Estates. 

 

 

In many counties, the illicit requirement is not applicable until capital renovation of the pool area. But if not, what do you do if the county representative refuses to consent to the suggested modification? Do you refuse to comply with state law in order to comply with the FHAA, or do you comply with the state mandate and violate the FHAA? As of this time, you must seek out counsel, pay them, obtain advice, and follow it.

Management Communications Can Violate the FHAA

In a housing case decided in Northern California in May, 2016, the landlord was called out for discrimination against children in an all age facility. In Bischoff v. Brittain,3 the on site management received training, including a “Resident Relations Training,” at seminars pro- vided by independent experts. A “Brief Recap of Notes” document summarizes several meetings and was distributed to the managers. The document stated that as to handling unsupervised children:

1. If you have a young child not being supervised, walk the child home and speak with whoever is in charge.

2. Have your supervisor write a letter after you speak with the person in the apartment, which will alert whoever opens the mail, that you are worried over the child’s safety-you are now showing safety concerns and are not attacking their parenting skills or being discriminatory.

  1. If nothing changes and the child is once again outside un- supervised, notify your super- visor who will now contact so- cial services and/or the police. 

  2. If nothing still changes, we will then consider eviction and note the reasoning on their notice. 


The landlord’s property director said the document is “simply a statement of suggested guidelines for the managers’ reference and discretionary application to unsupervised young children.” However, the court found that the reasoning violates “familial status” rights. The director relied on a mistaken understanding that “young children require regular adult super- vision.” She felt that management should “encourage [...] parents and guardians to exercise such supervision for the safety of their young children and for the benefit of other residents.” She believed that “such supervision is necessary so that young children who are tenant residents “will not be at risk of injuring themselves” or other residents, or “engaging in disruptive or destructive activities.”

“In an effort to promote such supervision and discourage parent-guardian neglect, we developed internal suggested guidelines for managers to use in their discretion as circumstances might war- rant.”

3. U.S.Dist.E.D.Ca. April 29, 2016, Decided; May 2, 2016, No. 2:14-cv-01970-KJM-CKD, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58280.

 

 

The guidelines do not pass muster, said the court. While intended to protect the safety and well-being of young children in need of supervision, to encourage parents or guardians to provide that needed supervision, and to limit disturbances to other residents, they also allow differential treatment. It is no help that the guidelines serve the concomitant business purpose of protecting against liability that might arise from injuries to such young children.

The court found that the landlord’s policies “[...] toward unsupervised young children inherently treats children differently than adults by limiting when they may use the common areas of the complex to times when they are supervised by an adult.” The guidelines also treat parents of young children differently by subjecting them to certain consequences if their children are found unsupervised. Adult-only households may use the complex without limitation and warnings or facing eviction for violating the adult supervision guidelines. Be- cause children are subjected to explicitly differential treatment there was a validly claimed discrimination based on the face of the guide- lines.

The landlord claimed the guide- lines are not discriminatory: they are not a formalized, mandatory “policy” or rental provision; they only limit young children to the ex- tent the children are unsupervised; they apply only to young children; they have nondiscriminatory justifications; and they originated from a “neutral” source (educational sources). The court replied that the landlord did not understand the law“[...]to establish a prima facie case of facial discrimination, a plaintiff must show only that the defendant subjects a protected group to explicitly differential treatment”4. But the landlord did not dispute that it treated unsupervised young children and their parents differently than adults sans children.

The guidelines were violations even if just “[l]imiting the use of privileges and facilities [which] is a violation of [§ 3604(b)].” The court also found it irrelevant that the guidelines distilled “neutral” information. The courts have held that “all-age” park rules which: (i) treat kids differently; (ii) are not based on a “compelling business necessity” and (iii) did not represent the “least restrictive intrusions” on familial status rights in promoting a health and safety interest, violate the law.

Any age restrictive rules which treat children, (and thus, families with children), differently and less favorably than adults-only house- holds violate the law. Period. In other words, no matter how ad- ministered, the rules were invalid as drafted. Even if never enforced, such rules may lead to a resident’s belief about allowable restrictions in use of the facilities. And now, the right to sue extends to internal policies handed down to on site personnel.

4. Citing Community House, Inc. v. City of Boise (9th Cir. 2007) 490 F.3d 1041 at 1050.

 

 

Safeguards Against Harm? 

Well-meant intentions are no defense, said the court. The court noted that the landlord submitted no evidence that managers were told to apply the policy only if a young child’s safety was threatened, or that managers in practice applied the policy in such a way. Land- lord also said, diluting the safety defense, that one of the “primary goals” of the guidelines is to limit disturbances to other residents by children, which “likely encompasses situations beyond those in which a child’s safety is legitimately threatened.” Peace and quiet is not a licit basis for the special treatment of children. Broad exclusionary policies without very particular narrowly tailored terms will be struck down. No cases specify what those narrow, least intrusive regulations might look like. And, it is submitted that seeking to develop children-specific rules is so fraught with difficulty and exposure as not to be worth the time and effort. Again, let the parents and guardians decide.

Eliminate the Exposure You May Have: 

Scour on-site management directives, policy handbooks, instructions, procedures manuals, emails. In other words, audit your intermediate level of management documentation; the entire body of memorialized supervision instructions, policies and requirements that apply to on site management. Do your employment agreements contain your fair housing policy? Do your agreements prohibit discriminatory statements, actions, conduct, communications, jokes, or notices? None of these documents is privileged from the prying eye of the plaintiff class counsel. It may be time to update these documents.

Remember: requiring adult supervision is NOT allowed in all age parks. 

An adult supervision requirement is outlawed by several decisions citing United States v. Plaza Mo- bile Estates: it is the parents, not management, who act as the “gate- keepers” of the facilities including swimming pool access and usage of facilities in “all age” communities. Requiring any form of super- vision constitutes a violation of the FHAA.

The FHAA Examples of Improper Rules to Update 

Rules and regulations in “all age” communities which discriminate include the following. If your rules contain any of the following restrictions, or any rules similar to them, it is strongly advised that a legal advisor conversant with the FHAA (and implementing regulations and judicial and administrative interpretations) be promptly consulted.

  • “Residents and visitors under the age of eighteen (18) years old are not permitted to use the saunas [or] jet pool at any time;” 

  • “Residents and visitors under the age of fourteen (14) years old are not permitted to use the saunas or jet pool (spa) at any time;” 

  • “Use of the spa is prohibited to children under eighteen (18) years old;” 
“Use of the pool by children fourteen (14) years old and un- der requires accompaniment by a resident;” 

  • “Parent of resident child or resident host must accompany 
children at all times in the pool or pool area;”
  • “No one under the age of four-
teen (14) years old is allowed • to use the Jacuzzi;”
  • “Guests and residents under the age of eighteen (18) years
old are permitted to use the swimming pool and sun deck from the hours of 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. only and must be accompanied by an adult park resident;”
  • “Parent or responsible adult must accompany all children under fourteen (14) years old at all times [in the swimming pool and/or pool area];”
  • “Minors under 16 years old are not permitted in the therapeutic pool;”
  • “At 2:00 p.m. children are to be out of the pool area;”
  • “All children must be accompanied by an adult to use the pool;”
  • Children under the age of fourteen (14) years old shall not be allowed to ride a bicycle on the park streets without the accompaniment of an adult registered to the mobilehome in which they reside;
  • Children under the age of eight (8) years old must be confined to a play area in the rear fenced yard of the family residence;
  • “Children under 18 years old must be accompanied by a parent when they are in the swimming pool;”
  • Children shall not be allowed to play on park streets, or in any other common areas;
  • Residents under the age of eighteen (18) years old shall not be permitted to use the recreation building (clubhouse) or any other recreational facilities without the accompaniment of an adult registered to the mobilehome in which they reside;
  • Residents under the age of eighteen (18) years old must be accompanied by the registered resident adult from the same household in order to use any of the recreational facilities or recreational building (club- house);
  • Residents and visitors under the age of eighteen (18) years old may use the swimming pool and sun deck during the hours of 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. (noon) every day. Residents and visitors under the age of eighteen (18) years old are not permitted around the pool or sun deck after 12:00 noon;
  • Residents and visitors under the age of eighteen (18) years old are not permitted to use the saunas or the therapeutic jet pool at any time; 

  • Children under the age of four- teen (14) years old must be ac- companied by a registered resident adult to be allowed to ride a bicycle in the park streets; 

  • The adult resident host must accompany all guests of their mobilehome who use the recreation building (clubhouse) or any of the recreational facilities of the park; 

  • Children under the age of fourteen (14) years old must be ac- companied by the registered resident adult from the same household in order to use any of the recreational facilities or recreational building (club- house); 

  • When using the clubhouse, persons under ten (10) years old must be accompanied by an adult resident; use of the billiards room was restricted to residents over eighteen (18) years old; 

  • Use of the spa was prohibited to children under eighteen (18) years old; 

  • Use of the pool by children fourteen (14) years old and under required accompaniment by a resident; 

  • Bicycle riding by anyone is prohibited unless accompanied by adult resident parent or adult host; 

  • Parent of resident child or resident host must accompany children at all times in the pool or pool area;
  • Guests and residents under the age of eighteen (18) years old are permitted to use the swimming pool and sun deck from the hours of 9.00 a.m. to 12 noon only and must be accompanied by the parent or resident child or resident host;
  • No one under the age of eighteen (18) years old is permitted in the billiard room at any time;
  • No one under the age of four- teen (14) years old is allowed to use the Jacuzzi;
  • At 2:00 p.m. children are to be out of the pool area;
  • Children are not to walk around the park without adult supervision;
  • Minors under 16 years old are not permitted in the therapeutic pool;
  • For safety, children are not to ride bicycles, roller skates, skateboards, play in the street, play in RV storage, car wash, or wander around the park;
  • Children under 8 years old shall be confined to a play area in the rear fenced yard of the family residence;

Age restrictive rules are “facially” discriminatory when they treat children, and thus, families with children, differently and less favor- ably than adults-only households. In other words, no matter how ad- ministered, the rules were invalid as drafted. Even if never enforced, such rules may lead to a resident’s belief about allowable restrictions in use of the facilities.

The FFHA 

In 1988, Congress amended the Federal Fair Housing Act (“FFHA”) to prohibit not just discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin, but also included “familial status” discrimination. “Familial status” is defined as “one or more individuals (who have not attained the age of 18 years) being domiciled with ... a parent or another person having legal custody of such individual or individuals.” Among other provisions, it is unlawful:

To discriminate against any persons in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of ... familial status ...”

Thus, in an all-age community, restrictions on access or use of common facilities and amenities based on age of a child (“familial status”) is a violation of the FHAA, absent “compelling business necessity.” 5 Any such rule must be proved to be the “least restrictive means” to achieving a health and safety justification. What does this legalese mean to the parkowner in practical terms? A full blown trial, risks of heavy penalties, damages and attorney’s fees and costs. This is because there is no bright line test for any age-restrictive regulation: the law is bereft of any standards

or guidance to make a reasonable, predictable risk-assessment or likelihood of success. Each case de- pends on the facts and surrounding circumstances. In other words, each case is a “test-case.” In sum, the penalties are so severe that prudent counsel would admonish all to eliminate age-restrictive rules and regulations.

“Children” are as protected as any other protected class. Thus, a simple way to test a rule for FHAA compliance is this: insert any other protected class in the place of “children” when testing a rule and regulation. For example, a common past rule (and no longer a valid one) is “all children under 14 years of age must be accompanied by an adult resident when in the pool area.” How does this sound: “All Methodists must be accompanied by an adult resident. . .” Obviously, such a rule would violate the FHAA.

It is also a violation of the FHAA to express to agents, brokers, employees, prospective sellers, or renters a preference for certain types of ten- ants. Another issue is the use of selective advertisements, or denying information about housing opportunities to particular segments of the housing market because of their race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin. It is a violation to place ads that specify a preference for: “mature ten- ants,” stating an aversion to “families with children, teenagers in the building; advertisements stating no more than “one child,” or stating that the parkowner does not “rent to children.” “Adult Community” at the entrance to a non-exempt com- munity also violates the FHAA. Use of the word “adult” without in- dicating it is housing for older per- sons, constitutes a violation of the

FHAA. There are no such things as “adult” mobilehome parks, and use of the phrase is deemed to chill family applicants from applying for tenancy in them.

The court held that these rules were not based on “compelling business necessity” and did not represent the “least restrictive” intrusions on “familial status” rights in promoting a health and safety interest. Having held that these rules were unlawful, the issues remaining for trial in the Plaza Mobile Estates case included damages, punitive damages, civil penalties, injunctive relief and attorney’s fees and costs for the private plaintiffs. While the action was brought as a class claim (in which all of possibly thousands of affected tenants could have been included in damages awards), class certification efforts were defeated, allowing only the named parties to seek damages.

The court’s comments regarding the invalidation of these rules is telling and troubling. The court stated that the age restrictive rules were “facially” discriminatory. In other words, no matter how ad- ministered, the rules were invalid as drafted. Even if never enforced such rules might dissuade a prospective applicant from applying for tenancy.

What Can We Do to Avoid This Mine Field? 

Even in the absence of specific rules and the ability to craft them, educational materials may help parents understand common risks associated with the very youth. When educational information is provided as an adjunct to an activity rather than a rule restricting an activity, the chance of a claim of discriminatory preference is less likely to be made. For example, when a parkowner offers such educational material from organizations who seek better protection of children (e.g., police departments, charitable organizations, etc.), the parkowner is providing a service - disseminating information and facts - not discriminating against children. 6

Conclusion 

All the parkowner wants is to know what the law is! What we do know is that certain rules are not permissible. Does it make any practical sense to promulgate new regula- tions affecting treatment of children? No.

The best policy for the all-age park is to have no references to children, child, adult, or other words which suggest differential treatment be-tween adults and children. The de- cisions affecting the young are for the parents to decide on.

Even with neutral rules and regulations, the enforcement of the rules needs to be considered. Does your manager have different attitudes, tone, manner or demeanor in general in dealing with kids and their parents? There is no room for derogatory comments, insults, or force beyond the same level applied to parents and other childless adults. Our mantra: Professional- ism. First and always! ◆

5. Some cases phrase the test differently (least restrictive, narrowly tailored, not speculative, etc.), but the reader is best advised to apply the standards applicable to the most stringent precedents in effect at this time, until variations on the articulation of the proper test for rules is made judicially and clear through further appellate court development. This is what plaintiff lawyers do. They will make the claim that the rules do not pass muster under the most difficult of possible tests. If you wish to preclude court tests of your rules, they will be drafted based on clearing the highest possible legal hurdles.

6. For example, educational material exist which explain that young children have peripheral vision which is two-thirds that of an adult; they have difficulty determining the source of sounds; traffic noises and sirens may be confusing; they may not understand that an automobile may seriously hurt or kill them; most children cannot understand a complex chain of events; children believe that all grownups will look out for them; they think that if they can see an adult driving a car toward them, the driver must be able to see them; children often mix fantasy with reality - they may give themselves superhuman powers and do not understand that a moving vehicle can hurt them; they have difficulty judging the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles.

 

Terry R. Dowdall, Esq. has specialized in manufactured home communities’ law since 1978. Mr. Dowdall can be reached at Dowdall Law Offices, APC Orange County office; 284 North Glassell Street, 1st Floor, Orange, CA 92866; 714.532.2222 phone; 714.532.3238 fax. email: trd@dowdalllaw. net; www.dowdalllaw. com.

This article is reprinted from WMA "Reporter", July 2016.  MHCO would like to express our deep appreciation to WMA for their permission to reprint this informative article.