269 F.3d 831 (7th Cir. 2001), 00-2674, Dadian v Wilmette

Docket Nº:00-2674, 00-2757
Citation:269 F.3d 831
Party Name:George Dadian and Astrid Dadian, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Village of Wilmette, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:October 18, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

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269 F.3d 831 (7th Cir. 2001)

George Dadian and Astrid Dadian, Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

Village of Wilmette, Defendant-Appellant.

Nos. 00-2674, 00-2757

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

October 18, 2001

Argued February 23, 2001

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 98 C 3731--David H. Coar, Judge.

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Before Flaum, Chief Judge, Ripple, and Williams, Circuit Judges.

Williams, Circuit Judge.

George and Astrid Dadian wanted to reconstruct their home with an attached, front garage. A local ordinance allowed a permit for a front driveway when 50% of the homes on the homeowner's block already had front or side driveways, or when the homeowner could demonstrate a hardship. Only six of sixteen homes on the Dadians' block had front or side drives, so they petitioned pursuant to the hardship exception claiming they had problems with walking (Mrs. Dadian has osteoporosis and asthma, and Mr. Dadian has orthopedic problems). The Village trustees in a 5-2 vote denied the permit because, among other reasons, they believed Mrs. Dadian's problems with "twisting and turning" would create a safety hazard to the small children on the block. The Dadians sued the Village for disability discrimination under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq. ("ADA"), and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. ("FHAA"), and for a denial of equal protection and substantive due process under

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42 U.S.C. § 1983.1 The case went to trial before a jury, which rendered a verdict in favor of the Dadians. Because we find that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict and no error in the jury instructions or evidentiary rulings, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

The Dadians, who are in their mid-70's, have lived in their current house with a detached garage in Wilmette, Illinois, since 1959. Mrs. Dadian has had problems walking for nine years due to osteoporosis and she also suffers from asthma. She has been confined to a wheelchair in the past, but currently works 2-3 days a week. Mr. Dadian also claims to have problems walking, and works as a real estate agent approximately 6 days a week. Because of their health problems, they hired an architect to design a one-story house on their lot with rooms and hallways wide enough for a wheelchair. The design also included an attached, front garage with a 30-foot driveway. An attached, rear garage would have required an 80-foot driveway, but because Mrs. Dadian has problems twisting and turning for long distances, they believed that the front garage was the best alternative.

In conjunction with the proposed redesign of their house, in 1994, the Dadians sought a 6" side variance from the Village, which was approved, and a curb cut for a front driveway. The Village's Board of Trustees ("Board") denied the request for a curb cut pursuant to a local ordinance that prohibited front or side driveways when less than 50% of the houses on a block had them; only six of sixteen houses on the Dadians' block had front or side driveways. In 1997, the ordinance was amended to include a "hardship exception."2 The Dadians reapplied for a front driveway permit in 1998.

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The Board held a meeting to determine whether to grant the permit. They heard from the Dadians' lawyer and read reports from two doctors detailing the extent of Mrs. Dadian's physical impairments. The doctors indicated that the front driveway would be better than a rear one because Mrs. Dadian was able to twist and turn for shorter distances. The Board also heard from residents in the neighborhood. A next-door neighbor asserted that he was concerned about the possible loss of trees but was willing to support the Dadians, while another neighbor mentioned that he thought front garages were unsightly. One neighbor appeared in- person at the hearing and stated that she was concerned about the safety of small children.

Three members of the Board expressly stated that they were concerned about whether Mrs. Dadian could safely back out of a driveway and not cause injury to small children on the block. Because of the Board's safety concerns about her backing out a front driveway, the Board proposed that the Dadians construct an attached, rear garage with a turnabout (this was not an accommodation because the Dadians did not need a curb cut permit to construct a rear driveway). The Dadians rejected the proposal on the grounds that it would require almost complete loss of the grass in the backyard and give the backyard a "parking lot feel." The Board voted 5-2 to deny the permit for the front driveway.

B. District Court Proceedings

The Dadians sued the Village for disability discrimination and a denial of equal protection and substantive due process. The case went to trial before a jury who heard testimony from multiple witnesses, including both of the Dadians and their doctor. The jury also viewed a videotape of the Board's meeting. At the close of the evidence, the Village filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50. The district court granted the Village's motion on the equal protection and substantive due process claim, but denied the motion as to the claims premised on the Village's violation of the ADA and FHAA. The jury rendered a verdict for the Dadians on the remaining claims, and the Village timely filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or alternatively, for a new trial. The court denied the Village's motion and enjoined the Village from enforcing, or endeavoring to enforce, the ordinance against the Dadians to prevent them from constructing a house with an attached, front garage. The Village appeals from the jury verdict, the district court's denial of its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or alternatively for a new trial, and the entry of the injunction.

II. ANALYSIS

On appeal, the Village argues that the Dadians failed to prove that: 1) they were disabled, 2) the Village did not reasonably accommodate their disabilities, and 3) the Village intentionally discriminated against them because of their disabilities. The Village also contends that the jury instructions improperly placed the burden of proof on the Village as to whether Mrs. Dadian posed a direct threat to the safety of others, and that various evidentiary rulings at trial were improper. We address and reject each argument in turn.

A. Disability discrimination

Since the Village's motion for judgment as a matter of law (directed verdict) was denied on the same grounds challenged on appeal, we interpret the Village's argument as a challenge to the court's denial, so our review is de novo. See Hasham v. California State Bd. of Equalization, 200 F.3d 1035, 1043 (7th Cir.

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2000). But, because there was a jury verdict, we are "limited to deciding only whether the evidence presented at trial, with all the reasonable inferences drawn there from, 'is sufficient to support the verdict when viewed in the light most favorable to the [plaintiff].'" Id. (citation omitted and alteration in original). "We will overturn a jury verdict for the plaintiff only if we conclude that 'no rational jury could have found for the plaintiff.' Indeed, this standard is applied 'stringently in discrimination cases where witness credibility is often crucial.'" Id. (internal citations omitted).

1. Evidence of the Dadians' disabilities.

The Village's first argument is that the Dadians did not establish a prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas method of proof because they did not prove that they were disabled. We are baffled as to why the Village is arguing about the application of McDonnell Douglas because once the case has been decided on the merits, the McDonnell Douglas framework drops out of the analysis. See United States Postal Serv. Bd. of Governors v. Aikens, 460 U.S. 711, 714-15 (1983); Hasham, 200 F.3d at 1044. After trial, the issue becomes whether the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence, see Knox v. State of Indiana, 93 F.3d 1327, 1334 (7th Cir. 1996), with the focus being on whether there was sufficient evidence on the ultimate question of discrimination. Hasham, 200 F.3d at 1044; Heerdink v. Amoco Oil Co., 919 F.2d 1256, 1259-60 (7th Cir. 1990). Therefore, we recast the Village's argument as a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence as to whether the Dadians' impairments rendered them disabled.

Title II of the ADA and the FHAA prohibit housing discrimination because of a person's disability or handicap.3 Both acts provide that a person is disabled, or handicapped, if she has 1) a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, 2) a record of such an impairment, or 3) is regarded as having such an impairment. 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2); 42 U.S.C. § 3602(h). Because both acts contain the same definition, we use the terms disabled and handicapped interchangeably throughout the opinion, and construe them consistently with each other. See Bragdon v. Abbott, 524 U.S. 624, 631 (1998). Whether a plaintiff has an impairment and whether it substantially limits a major life activity is to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Byrne v. Bd. of Educ., Sch. of West Allis-West Milwaukee, 979 F.2d 560, 565 (7th Cir. 1992).

The jury heard testimony from one doctor and both of the Dadians about the disabling and degenerative nature of Mrs. Dadian's osteoporosis. Dr. Semerjian testified that Mrs. Dadian's osteoporosis caused her to have a femur fracture, a total knee replacement, compression fractures of her vertebrae, and degenerative disease of the joints. He further testified that these problems substantially limited her ability to walk (a major life activity). Mrs....

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