Legal Case #4: You Don’t Have to Break the Law to Accommodate a Tenant

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A somewhat odd case out of California illustrates another important qualifier of the landlord’s duty to provide a requested accommodation.

Situation: A tenant with “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” (EHS), which causes him to be physically and neurologically affected by radiofrequency emissions from cell phone equipment, asks the city to remove a cell tower near his unit. The city refuses, noting that the tower’s placement is based on requirements of federal environmental law. So, the tenant sues the city and homeowners association for disability discrimination.

You Make the Call: Does the tenant have a valid claim for failure to accommodate?

Answer: No

Ruling: The California federal court grants summary judgment to the defendants. Even if EHS is a “qualifying disability” under the FHA, the request to remove the cell tower isn’t a “reasonable accommodation” because it would force the city to violate the environmental law [Wolf v. City of Millbrae, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 159025, 2021 WL 3727072].

Takeaway: You don’t have to provide accommodations that would require violating laws or lease obligations to other tenants. However, you should explore alternatives that would satisfy the requestor’s needs without violating laws or contractual obligations. There were no such alternatives available in the Wolf case.

Tip: You need only grant requested accommodations that are reasonable. According to HUD, a request for an accommodation is reasonable if it:

  • Doesn’t cause landlords to incur an undue financial and administrative burden;
  • Doesn’t cause a basic or fundamental change in the nature of the housing program available;
  • Won’t cause harm or damage to others; and
  • Isn’t technologically impossible.

To that list, you can add a request that doesn’t force the landlord to violate a valid law or contractual obligation.

 

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