U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Wheelchair Ramp Dispute Tossed: Not Ripe Until Denied

Dan and Debbie Scoggins wanted the best for their son Jacob. After their requests to their Homeowner’s Association for permission to build a wheelchair ramp at the front door of their home and for permission for Jacob to ride an ATV within the housing subdivision went unanswered, they filed suit under the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) on his behalf.

The family made their initial request to allow Jacob, who is partially paralyzed from a childhood accident, to ride an ATV around the property’s unpaved roads in May 2009. The matter was tabled, and mostly ignored, until litigation commenced in October 2010. A few weeks before the lawsuit was filed, the family also requested permission to build a wheelchair-accessible ramp leading to the front door of the house.

Wheelchair Claim Not Ripe

The HOA's covenants allowed them thirty days to respond to written requests to modify one's home, plus the right to request more details on the plan. The family sent the ramp request on September 20, 2010 and filed suit on October 13, 2010. Their request was denied, pending a request for more information on the building plans, on October 18, 2010.

Oddly enough, the lower court chose to dispose of the case on the merits, in summary judgment, though it did note, in the alternative, that the case filing was premature. The Fourth Circuit overturned the merits decision, as the dispute had not yet ripened into an Article III case or controversy. A claim under the FHAA does not become ripe until a disabled resident is denied a reasonable accommodation or modification.

Under the terms of the HOA covenants, the association had thirty days to respond to the request. The Scoggins' court filing was premature. On the bright side, the HOA stipulated during oral argument that they would approve the ramp once the specifications are submitted. The family may have lost the case, but they won the controversy.

ATVs Too Dangerous, to Jacob and Others

The other FHAA claim at issue involved the family's request for the HOA to allow Jacob to ride an ATV around the subdivision, as the unpaved roads were too harsh for his electric wheelchair. The ATV claim, unlike the wheelchair claim, was ripe, as they family had made repeated requests, without a response or request for information, over a period of sixteen months.

Unfortunately, while the request was ripe, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the lower court's dismissal of the claim on the merits, which primarily addressed the issue of safety. The safety of both Jacob and the public are considered in an FHAA request. The evidence on record shows that the Scoggins' ATV lacked headlights and turn signals and created visibility issues for other vehicles on the road. The court also weighed heavily an expert's report that Jacob's use was especially dangerous due to his physical limitations. The Scoggins' only evidence that he could ride the ATV safely were his statements, and a video of him riding around the property.

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