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Vorchheimer v. The Philadelphian Owners Association

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

September 5, 2018


          Argued March 23, 2018

          On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 2:16-cv-05145) District Judge: Honorable Juan R. Sánchez

          Stuart D. Lurie [ARGUED] Rosenthal Lurie & Broudy Counsel for Appellant

          Christopher M. Curci [ARGUED] Freeman Mathis & Gary Counsel for Appellees

          Before: HARDIMAN, BIBAS, and ROTH, Circuit Judges



         A disabled tenant has a right to a reasonable housing accommodation that she needs to use and enjoy her home. But if her landlord offers her an alternative that likewise satisfies that need, she has no right to demand the particular accommodation that she wants.

         Carol Vorchheimer needs ready access to her rolling walker and wanted to leave it in her building's lobby. The building managers refused, but offered her four other ways to store and access her walker. She sued under the Fair Housing Amendments Act, claiming that her preferred accommodation was necessary to equally enjoy her home. The District Court dismissed her complaint, holding that she had not plausibly pleaded necessity.

         We will affirm. Necessity is a demanding legal standard. For a housing accommodation to be "necessary" under the Act, it must be required for that person to achieve equal housing opportunity, taking into account the alternatives on offer.

         Here, Vorchheimer's own complaint, including the exhibits attached to it, forecloses her claim. Leaving the walker in the lobby was her preference. But given the four alternatives offered-which she herself pleaded-she did not plausibly plead that it was necessary.

         I. Background

         We accept as true the well-pleaded allegations in the amended complaint, including those in the exhibits attached to it: Vorchheimer suffers from pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure) and other disabilities. As a result, she must use a rolling walker to get around. She owned a condominium in The Philadelphian and had a reserved parking space in front of the building. Vorchheimer would use her walker to get from her condo to the lobby and then use her cane from the lobby to her car. She could neither lift her walker, nor fold it, nor put it into her car. Instead, she began leaving her walker in The Philadelphian's lobby when she left.

         One day, Vorchheimer left her walker in a corner of the lobby. A building staffer took the walker and stored it in a room behind the concierge desk. The next day, The Philadelphian's general manager, Frank Bonom, emailed Vorchheimer and asked her to give her walker to the front-desk staffer whenever she left. She refused.

         A year-long quarrel ensued, culminating in this case. Vorchheimer kept leaving her walker in the lobby. The Philadelphian's staff kept putting it into storage until she returned and asked for it. And Vorchheimer kept insisting that putting it away was unacceptable. Because of her disabilities, she asserted, she needed her walker to be available in the lobby upon her return so that she could independently retrieve it.

         Although The Philadelphian refused to let Vorchheimer leave her walker in the lobby, it offered her four alternative accommodations. Am. Compl. ¶ 33 & Ex. 8. First, she could have staff store the walker and then return it to her in the lobby-she could either phone ahead to have it ready for her, or sit on a bench to await its retrieval. Second, she could have a staffer deliver the walker to her car before she got out of it. Third, she could have the doorman load the walker into and take it out of her car's trunk. Or finally, she could start parking in the building's indoor valet-parking garage, where she could leave her walker near the valet station. But Vorchheimer rejected all these alternatives and insisted that she needed to leave her walker in the lobby.

         To support her demand, Vorchheimer gave the building's managers several letters from her doctors. In the first two, her doctors detailed her medical issues and wrote that "[h]er use of a rolling walker is a medical necessity." Id. Exs. 4 & 7. In the third, her doctor reiterated that she needs to "have ready access to her walker or scooter" and that she should "not [be] required to stand [a]waiting assistance for any period of time." Id. Ex. 9. The doctor noted management's offer to bring the walker to Vorchheimer's car. But he considered it "preferable to simply have her walker readily available to her in the building lobby." Id. This way, she could "maintain[ ] her independence" and not risk having to stand and wait for someone else to get the walker. Id.

         Neither side would budge. So Vorchheimer sued Bonom, The Philadelphian Owners' Association, and the Association's then-president, June Idzal. She alleged that the defendants were violating 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f) by refusing to let her leave her walker in The Philadelphian's lobby so she could retrieve it by herself. And she attached to her complaint her doctors' letters and her correspondence with the building's managers.

         The District Court dismissed Vorchheimer's complaint. It acknowledged that "keeping her equipment in the lobby may be Plaintiff['s] preferred accommodation." App. 2 n.1. But she had not plausibly alleged that it was necessary. App. 3 n.2. So, the Court held, "Defendants' storage . . . and prompt retrieval of [her walker] when she returns does not deny Plaintiff a full and equal opportunity to enjoy her housing." Id. Vorchheimer's amended complaint added nothing material, so the District Court dismissed again based on lack of necessity. App. 5 n.1. Vorchheimer then filed this appeal and later moved out of The Philadelphian.

         II. Standard of Review

         We review de novo the dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim. Foglia v. Renal Ventures Mgmt., LLC, 754 F.3d 153, 154 n.1 (3d Cir. 2014). In doing so, we construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. We accept all factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in her favor. Id. To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain enough facts to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). In determining whether Vorchheimer's claim is plausible, we consider not only her complaint, but also the exhibits she attached to it, including her doctors' letters and The Philadelphian's correspondence proposing alternative accommodations. See Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010).

         III. To Be "Necessary," A Housing Accommodation Must Be Required To Achieve Equal Housing Opportunity in Light of the Alternatives Offered

         The Fair Housing Amendments Act forbids housing discrimination against the disabled. One of its key provisions bans "discriminat[ing] against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such dwelling, because of [that person's] handicap." 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(2), (f)(2)(A). "[D]iscrimination includes":

[1] a refusal to make
[2] reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, ...

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