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Law School Case Brief

Hill v. Cmty. of Damien of Molokai - 1996-NMSC-008, 121 N.M. 353, 911 P.2d 861

Rule:

There is a strong public policy in favor of including small group homes within the definition of the term "family." The federal government has expressed a clear policy in favor of removing barriers preventing individuals with physical and mental disabilities from living in group homes in residential settings and against restrictive definitions of "families" that serve to exclude congregate living arrangements for the disabled. The Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 3601-3631, sets out this public policy. The legislative history of the amended act reflects the national policy of deinstitutionalizing disabled individuals and integrating them into the mainstream of society. The FHA is intended to prohibit special restrictive covenants or other terms or conditions or denials of service because of an individual's handicap and which exclude, for example, congregate living arrangements for persons with handicaps. It protects against efforts to restrict the ability of individuals with handicaps to live in communities.

Facts:

Community of Damien of Molokai (Community) is a private, nonprofit corporation which provides homes to people with AIDS as well as other terminal illnesses. In December 1992 the Community leased the residence at 716 Rio Arriba, S.E., Albuquerque, located in a planned subdivision called Four Hills Village, for use as a group home for four individuals with AIDS. The four residents who subsequently moved into the Community's group home were unrelated, and each required some degree of in-home nursing care.

Plaintiffs-Appellees, William Hill, III, Derek Head, Charlene Leamons, and Bernard Dueto (Neighbors) live in Four Hills Village on the same dead-end street as the group home. Shortly after the group home opened, the Neighbors noticed an increase in traffic on Rio Arriba street, going to and from the group home. The Neighbors believed that the Community's use of its house as a group home for people with AIDS violated one of the restrictive covenants applicable to all the homes in the sixteenth installment of Four Hills Village. Installment 16 encompasses the Community's group home and the Neighbors' houses. The district court held that the use of certain property by the Community as a group home for individuals with AIDS violated a housing development covenant, which limited the use of lots to single-family residences, and that enforcing the restrictive covenant did not violate the Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 3601-3631.

Issue:

Did the use of certain property by the Community as a group home for individuals with AIDS violate a housing development covenant, which limited the use of lots to single-family residences?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The Court held that the term "family" was ambiguous and that because the group home was designed to provide the individuals who lived there with a traditional family structure, setting, and atmosphere, the use complied with the covenant. The court noted that the strong governmental policy that encouraged locating group homes in single-family residential areas further justified an expansive interpretation of the term "family." The court held that even in the absence of discriminatory intent, enforcement of the covenant violated the FHA because it had a disparate impact upon the handicapped, who required congregate living arrangements in order to live in a residential community. Finally, the expansive interpretation of the covenants was a reasonable accommodation required by the FHA. However, the denial of attorney's fees to the organization was justified in light of the Neighbors' nondiscriminatory intent.

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