January 30, 2020
LANSING – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel – along with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights – filed an amicus brief Wednesday with the Michigan Court of Appeals asking appellate judges to accept the argument that state laws which require modifications be made to residential units for new tenants with disabilities should also apply to existing tenants who may develop disabilities.
The brief pertains to a lawsuit between Boulder Bluff Condominiums and Bobbie Jo Koomen – the personal representative for the estate of Terry Romig and the late Robert J. Romig.
The state agencies, on behalf of the plaintiff, assert that Boulder Bluff Condominiums violated the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, which protects people with disabilities from housing discrimination, among other things.
"My office is committed to protecting all Michigan residents from undue hardship and harm, regardless of their physical abilities," Nessel said. "Under previous interpretations of the law, a housing association could physically change the property and potentially create barriers for existing tenants with disabilities to overcome, and these tenants would have little recourse. We're confident the court will see the tragic circumstances surrounding this case and the logic in keeping our residents safe."
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The suit asserts that Boulder Bluff Condominiums refused a request to install a handrail on the stairs to the porch of one of its tenants, Robert Romig, who tragically died as a result of injuries he sustained in a severe fall from those stairs.
Romig was elderly and had a heart condition. He fell twice after the housing association repeatedly refused to allow him to install a railing so that he could safely enter and exit his home.
After Romig's second fall, the housing association approved the modification – 68 days after the initial request – but it was too late. Romig never recovered from his injuries and later died.
The amicus brief asks the court to determine that the reasonable accommodation and modification provisions of the Act apply not only at the time of initial occupancy but continue to apply as long as the property is occupied by an individual with a disability. The lower court determined housing associations are only obligated to provide such modifications at the time the dwelling has been acquired in a real estate transaction, or while people are searching for a place to reside.
"The protections of the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, like those of the Americans with Disabilities Act, do not end on move-in day," said Mary Engelman, Interim Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. "Any of us can – and many of us will – become disabled at some point in our lives. It is vital that we can continue to live safely in our homes even as our abilities change. It is important that the courts do not now nullify these essential protections which so many of us depend on being there if we need them."
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The legal standards governing a housing association's failure to accommodate or modify the physical layout of a property for people with disabilities is an issue that regularly comes up before the Civil Rights Commission and the Department of Civil Rights. In the past five years, the agencies have addressed close to 500 such cases.
Nearly 1.5 million Michigan residents, including 100,000 veterans, have some kind of disability.
The Department of Civil Rights is the investigative arm of the Civil Rights Commission and the lead agency that investigates and resolves discrimination complaints.
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