Leasor Beware: distinctions between design and lease under the Fair Housing Act's statute of limitations

A university student, who used a wheelchair because of a neuromuscular condition, filed suit against a university and others asserting that the apartment he leased was not properly accessible. The design for the building at issue was completed in 2000. Student signed a lease in December, 2005 and filed suit a year later asserting claims under the Fair Housing Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“§ 504”). The university and others moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely. The court’s decision found the complaint was timely because the lease was a new occurrence.

The Fair Housing Act provides that a person has two years to file suit “after the occurrence or the termination of an alleged discriminatory housing practice. . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 3613(a)(1)(A). The question for the court was the meaning of “occurrence or the termination.” After addressing a few other court decisions, including the only two apparent federal appeals court decisions approaching the issue, the court concluded that two important distinctions lie in the Fair Housing Act. First, there is the “occurrence” of designing and completing the building itself, and second, there is the continuing operation and management of the building. 

As to the design portion of potential liability, the statute of limitations begins to run once the building is completed. Accordingly, the court found, the architects were previously properly dismissed from the case. As to the continuing operation and management of the building, the court concluded that each new lease of an apartment is a new “occurrence.” Unlike the architects and builders, the owners and managers continue to remain in control of the building and are in a position to correct design defects.  

The court also applied the same reasoning to, and reached the same conclusions under, the ADA and 504 claims. The court further expressly pointed out the a public university has a continuing obligation to assure that its buildings are accessible. 

The decision’s logic appears solid. Accordingly, leasor’s beware – and be sure your buildings are up to code.