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Oxford House, Inc. v. H. "Butch" Browning

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

July 24, 2017

OXFORD HOUSE, INC., ET AL.
v.
H. "BUTCH" BROWNING

          RULING AND ORDER

          BRIAN A. JACKSON, CHIEF JUDGE

         Before the Court are Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 59) and the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 55) filed by Defendant H. "Butch" Browning, in his official capacity as the State Fire Marshal of the Louisiana Office of the State Fire Marshal. Plaintiffs, in their Motion, seek summary judgment on their reasonable accommodation claims under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, as amended by the Fair Housing Amendments Act (collectively, "Fair Housing Act"), 42 U.S.C. ch. 45; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (collectively, "ADA"), 42 U.S.C. ch. 126; and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ("Rehabilitation Act"), 29 U.S.C. ch. 16. Defendant filed memoranda in opposition to the Motion, (see Docs. 78, 79), [1] and Plaintiffs filed a reply memorandum in support of the Motion, (see Doc. 94). Defendant, in his Motion, seeks summary judgment on Plaintiffs' reasonable accommodation claim under the Rehabilitation Act. Plaintiffs filed a memorandum in opposition to the Motion, (see Doc. 80); Defendant filed a reply memorandum in support of the Motion, (see Doc. 86); and Plaintiffs filed a surreply memorandum in further opposition to the Motion, (see Doc. 102). On June 12, 2017, the Court held oral argument on the Motions. For the reasons explained herein, Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 59) is GRANTED, and Defendant's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 55) is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         A. The Oxford House Model

         Plaintiff Oxford House, Inc. ("Oxford House, Inc." or "Corporation"), is a 501(c)(3) corporation that provides organizational support to persons attempting to establish group homes for individuals recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction. The first of these group homes - referred to as "Oxford Houses" - was established in 1976. Since that time, and due to congressional recognition of the effectiveness of Oxford Houses, Oxford House, Inc., has entered into contracts with a majority of states - including the State of Louisiana - to establish and maintain Oxford Houses. States do not provide any direct funding to individual Oxford Houses; states merely provide funding to subsidize the salaries of persons who facilitate the establishment of Oxford Houses within the state. At the time that Plaintiffs filed this Motion, 106 Oxford Houses were operating in Louisiana, including six in the Lake Charles area. In total, over 700 individuals resided in Oxford Houses in Louisiana at that time, but many more individuals sought to reside in those homes: in 2016, Oxford Houses in Louisiana received four applications for every vacancy. Oxford House residents in Louisiana - 20% of whom come directly from homelessness and 16% of whom come directly from incarceration, commitment in a mental health facility, or residency in a halfway house - tend to stay in an Oxford House for an average of eleven months.

         In order to reside in an Oxford House, an individual must be in recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction. The existing residents of a particular Oxford House vote to accept or deny the application of an individual seeking to reside in the home. An applicant who is currently using drugs or alcohol is disqualified from admission to an Oxford House, and any existing residents who relapse into drug or alcohol use are required to vacate the home.

         Oxford House, Inc., provides no direct financial assistance to individual Oxford Houses; each individual Oxford House must be financially self-reliant. Nor does Oxford House, Inc., own property. Rather, the mission of Oxford House, Inc., is to encourage groups of individuals who are recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction to lease homes, live together, affiliate with the Corporation's network, and utilize the Oxford House model. The Corporation endeavors to establish Oxford Houses in single-family homes located in residential neighborhoods, ideally with common areas that are large enough to accommodate all of the residents of the home during "house meetings" and informal gatherings. Oxford Houses typically are established in homes with four bedrooms, and residents customarily share bedrooms. In order for residents to fulfill both the responsibilities for the continued functioning of the home and the mission of the home to foster its residents' recovery, Oxford Houses must lodge at least six individuals. Five residents are charged with officer positions, entrusted with particular responsibilities and duties.

         B. The Beneficial Effects of the Oxford House Model

         The Oxford House model aims to facilitate the development of relationships among residents that resemble familial bonds. This aim is accomplished through the layout of homes and the lodging in a single-family home of several individuals who are all recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction: residents can avoid feelings of isolation and loneliness - which have been shown to contribute to relapse - by sharing bedrooms and by having the ability to congregate and socialize in communal living spaces. Oxford Houses provide stable housing for individuals recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction, and the communal living arrangement encourages residents to hold each other accountable for their actions in order to prevent relapse.

         For example, Plaintiff Dana Daniel ("Daniel") - who has suffered from an addiction to opioids for her entire adult life, detrimentally affecting her finances, personal and familial relationships, and housing situation - has described the Oxford House model as providing a "safe place ... to go" for persons recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction.[3] Daniel, who has resided at multiple Oxford Houses, explained that the presence of "other people . . . that are striving to . . . have healthy lives and recover . . . h[e]Id[] [her] accountable" and provided her with "guidance."[4]Daniel also credited the responsibilities conferred by the elected officer positions with promoting her sense of accountability to others. "You learn responsibility, " stated Daniel.[5]

         Additionally, the Oxford House model aids residents in repairing relationships that have been negatively affected by their alcoholism or drug addictions. Courtney Catanese ("Catanese") - who, at the time of Plaintiffs' Motion, had maintained sobriety for a one-year period since moving into Oxford Houses - described her recent success in attempting to repair the familial relationships that she had damaged during the period of her addiction.[6]

         The effectiveness of the Oxford House model in preventing an individual's relapse into drug and alcohol use has been confirmed by an academic study.[7] In a longitudinal study, researchers observed 897 Oxford House residents who resided in 219 Oxford Houses nationwide over the course of a year. Researchers found that the relapse rate for these Oxford House residents was 13.5%. The finding that over 86% of the observed Oxford House residents retained their sobriety throughout the study represents an outcome that is at least four times greater than normal outcomes following traditional detoxification and addiction treatment.

         C. Oxford House West Hale

         In 2012, an Oxford House was established in a house located at 236 West Hale Street in Lake Charles, Louisiana ("Oxford House West Hale"). The house is owned by Plaintiffs David and Janet Miller (collectively, "the Millers"), who lease the property to the residents for $1500 per month.

         The house is a one-story, single-family home and is located in a residential neighborhood. The house has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living and dining area, a kitchen, and a garage. Each of the bedrooms either features a window or an exterior door, and the living and dining area, as well as the garage, has an exterior door. The house contains connected smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, but it does not have a sprinkler system, a fire alarm system, or single-station smoke alarms that are powered by the house's electrical infrastructure.

         Oxford House West Hale operates as an all-female Oxford House. Due to the house's layout, a maximum of seven women may reside in the home. Catanese, at the time of Plaintiffs' Motion, resided at Oxford House West Hale and served as its "President." Daniel previously resided at Oxford House West Hale from December 2014 to May 2015.

         In addition to holding weekly "house meetings" to discuss the management of the house, the residents of Oxford House West Hale socialize with each other on a daily basis, both inside and outside of the house. The residents often congregate on the house's patio, discussing their efforts to recover from their addictions and to remain sober. Residents also accompany each other to meetings of the local chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, at which the residents present to those in attendance the availability of Oxford Houses as an option for those seeking to retain their sobriety. Apart from these recovery- and house-management-related interactions, residents dine with each other in nearby restaurants and see movies together. Residents of Oxford House West Hale "become very close" with each other, [8]and they maintain some of these tight-knit relationships even after leaving the house. "We . . . know all of each other's personal details, . . . and we hold each other accountable, " stated Catanese.[9]

         Each resident at Oxford House West Hale pays $125 per week to reside in the house. Both Daniel and Catanese have stated that they could not afford a higher weekly payment, and Catanese has stated that the other residents of the house likewise could not afford a higher weekly payment, based on her knowledge that each of the residents of the house was at least one week behind on her respective payments. The funds from such payments are used to satisfy monthly obligations, such as rent and utilities bills, and to purchase basic household supplies. The remainder of the funds are placed in a reserve, to be used in the event of vacancies or emergencies. At the time of Plaintiffs' Motion, Oxford House West Hale's bank account had a balance of $682.37, and the house had no alternative access to funding. Additionally, Oxford House West Hale was not financially stable at the time of Plaintiffs' Motion, which was at least in part due to recent vacancies that had arisen; four residents must be lodged in the house and making payments in order for Oxford House West Hale to exhibit financial stability.

         D. Louisiana Office of the State Fire Marshal

         The Louisiana Office of the State Fire Marshal ("Fire Marshal") is an agency of the State of Louisiana, organized within the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. H. "Butch" Browning ("Fire Marshal Browning") serves as the State Fire Marshal. The Fire Marshal, as a result of a grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a recipient of federal funding. The Fire Marshal is statutorily tasked with enforcing and promulgating rules and regulations with which structures in the state must comply, [10] although the Fire Marshal does not have the statutory authority to inspect "one- or two-family dwellings . . . for the purpose of reducing or eliminating fire hazards."[11]

         By statute, the State of Louisiana utilizes the provisions of the Life Safety Code as the minimum standards of fire safety with which all structures must comply, and the Fire Marshal is statutorily charged to enforce those provisions.[12] The Life Safety Code, sometimes referred to as "NFPA 101, " is published by the National Fire Protection Association. At all times relevant to this action, the Fire Marshal utilized the 2012 edition of the Life Safety Code.[13]

         The provisions of the Life Safety Code prescribe requirements with which structures must comply to ensure fire safety. The requirements applicable to a structure depend primarily on that structure's "occupancy type, " such as "one- or two-family dwelling, " "lodging or rooming house, " or "residential board and care facility." In general, the Life Safety Code prescribes the least onerous requirements on one-and two-family dwellings, with the requirements becoming more exacting as the number of occupants in and the public access to a structure increases.

         E. Citizen Complaint

         In January 2014, the Fire Marshal received a citizen complaint regarding various houses in Lake Charles, which the citizen alleged were operating as "halfway[-]type facilities." Oxford House West Hale was one of the houses referenced in the complaint.

         On March 10, 2014, Deputy Roddy Dauzat ("Deputy Dauzat"), along with other Fire Marshal employees, arrived at the house located at 3711 Swanee Street ("3711 Swanee") in Lake Charles - which had been included in the citizen complaint - to inspect the residence. An Oxford House had been established at 3711 Swanee, and during the course of the inspection, Deputy Dauzat was placed in contact with Paul Malloy ("Malloy"), the Chief Executive Officer of Oxford House, Inc. Malloy advised Deputy Dauzat that 3711 Swanee was a one-family dwelling, not a lodging or rooming house, and that the Fire Marshal thus had no authority to inspect the residence. Further, Malloy asserted that the current configuration of 3711 Swanee was protected under the Fair Housing Act, and later that day, Malloy sent a legal memorandum to the Fire Marshal to support that position. Deputy Dauzat thereafter ceased the inspection, and the scheduled inspections of the other Oxford Houses in the Lake Charles area were postponed, pending a review by the Fire Marshal of its authority to inspect the residences.

         In October 2014, Fire Marshal Browning and Malloy held a teleconference to discuss matters related to the Fire Marshal's desire to inspect the Oxford Houses in Lake Charles. Following that teleconference, Fire Marshal Browning informed Malloy via email that the Fire Marshal held the position that the Oxford Houses may be properly classified as lodging or rooming houses or residential board and care facilities, and therefore the Fire Marshal had the statutory authority to inspect the structures.

         F. "Reasonable Accommodation Request" of January 12, 2015

         On January 12, 2015, Steven G. Polin ("Polin") - General Counsel of Oxford House, Inc. - sent a letter to Fire Marshal Browning. The letter - which is thirteen- pages long and is replete with legal citations - contained the words "Reasonable Accommodation Request" in the subject line, and Polin stated that he was "making a reasonable accommodation request pursuant to the . . . Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. [§] 3604(f)(3)(B)."[14]'' Specifically, Polin requested that the Fire Marshal "waive ... the limitations of the maximum number of unrelated persons who can reside together as a family under the . . . [L]ife [S]afety [C]ode . . . and treat the use of Oxford House as the functional equivalent of a family . . . and the use of the property as a single[-] family use."[15] In support of the contention that the residents of Oxford Houses should be treated as the "functional equivalent of a family, " Polin stated:

First, all the residents have access to the entire house. Second, all the residents participate equally in the housekeeping functions of the house .... Third is the quality of the relationship among the residents. The emotional and mutual support and bonding [of] Oxford House residents in support of their recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism is the equivalent of the type of love and support received in a traditional family. Finally, the living arrangement is not based upon a profit motive. It is necessary that that the proposed Oxford House be able to have a minimum of six (6) residents in order for the residents to ameliorate the effects of the diseases of alcoholism and drug addiction. ... By living with other persons who are in recovery, the residents should never have to face an alcoholic's or addict's deadliest enemy: loneliness and isolation.[16]

         A response to this letter was never received by any representative of Oxford House, Inc. On March 24, 2015, Fire Marshal Browning made the determination that the Fire Marshal should proceed with the inspection process of the Oxford Houses. The Fire Marshal did not provide notice to any persons associated with Oxford House, Inc., regarding the resumption of the inspection process.

         G. Fire Marshal's Inspection of Oxford House West Hale

         On April 28, 2015, Fire Marshal employees inspected Oxford House West Hale.

         Based on the information obtained from the inspection, the Fire Marshal determined that the structure's occupancy type was a lodging or rooming house, due to the residency of six unrelated persons in the house. The Fire Marshal then ordered the Millers to reduce the number of unrelated occupants in the house to three within twenty-four hours and to submit a plan to the Fire Marshal to change the occupancy type of the house from a one-family dwelling to a lodging or rooming house.

         Plaintiffs thereafter initiated this action on May 1, 2015.

         H. "Reasonable Accommodation Request/Plan Review" of October 9, 2015

         On May 5, 2015, the Fire Marshal advised Polin that it did not have a formal process for reviewing requests for reasonable accommodations; rather, the Fire Marshal only considers "plan review" applications, the purpose of which are to change the occupancy type of a structure.

         On October 9, 2015, Polin sent a letter on behalf of Oxford House West Hale to Mindy Nunez Duffourc, who was representing the Fire Marshal. The letter contained the words "Reasonable Accommodation Request/Plan Review" in the subject line, and Polin stated that he was "requesting] that the . . . Fire Marshal make a reasonable accommodation pursuant to the . . . Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. [§] 3604(f)(3)(B)."[17] In particular, Polin requested that the Fire Marshal "waive the limitations of the maximum number of unrelated persons who can reside together as a family under the . . . [L]ife [S]afety [C]ode" and "treat the use of Oxford House as the functional equivalent of a family . . . and the use of the property as a single[-]family use."[18] In addition to incorporating the information contained in his letter dated January 12, 2015, Polin attached to the letter a copy of the Oxford House Manual, the lease agreement between the Millers and Oxford House West Hale, and a floor plan of the structure.[19]

         After reviewing the "Reasonable Accommodation Request/Plan Review, " on November 3, 2015, the Fire Marshal sent to the Millers a "Building Rehabilitation" letter. The letter stated that the Fire Marshal had reviewed Polin's correspondence as a request to change the occupancy type of the Oxford House West Hale structure from a one- or two-family dwelling to a lodging or rooming house. This letter also stated the various deficiencies - such as the lack of an automatic sprinkler system, a fire alarm system, and single-station smoke alarms powered by the building's electrical system - that the Millers were required to ameliorate in order to comply with the requirements that the Life Safety Code ...


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