Boston Housing Authority v. Bridgewaters

Citation452 Mass. 833,898 N.E.2d 848
Decision Date07 January 2009
Docket NumberSJC-10107
PartiesBOSTON HOUSING AUTHORITY v. Emmitt BRIDGEWATERS.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Amy Copperman & Judith Liben, Boston, for Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants.

Present: MARSHALL, C.J., IRELAND, SPINA, COWIN, CORDY, & BOTSFORD, JJ.

MARSHALL, C.J.

This is an appeal by Emmitt Bridgewaters from a judgment of the Boston Division of the Housing Court Department awarding possession of his apartment to the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), and denying Bridgewaters's postjudgment motions to alter or amend the judgment and for relief from the judgment. A judge in the Housing Court concluded that Bridgewaters had violated a provision of his lease by "committing a crime on the public housing development grounds that threatened the health and safety of another resident." Bridgewaters appealed, and the Appeals Court affirmed. Boston Hous. Auth. v. Bridgewaters, 69 Mass.App.Ct. 757, 768, 871 N.E.2d 1107 (2007). We granted his application for further appellate review limited to his claim for a reasonable accommodation.

Bridgewaters has a mental disability. Central to this appeal is his assertion that the BHA failed to explore the feasibility of a reasonable accommodation of his disability before concluding that continuation of his tenancy would constitute a threat to the safety of other tenants. See 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(9) (2000).1 Bridgewaters also asserts that the judge erred in concluding that he failed at trial to raise a request for a reasonable accommodation.2

Before a public housing authority may conclude that a disabled tenant poses "a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by a modification of policies, practices, or procedures, or by the provision of auxiliary aids or services," 24 C.F.R. § 9.131(b) (2008), the authority "must make an individualized assessment, based on reasonable judgment that relies on current medical knowledge or on the best available objective evidence to ascertain: the nature, duration, and severity of the risk; the probability that the potential injury will actually occur; and whether reasonable modifications of policies, practices, or procedures will mitigate the risk." 24 C.F.R. § 9.131(c) (2008). We conclude that, in this case, the public housing authority was on notice prior to trial that Bridgewaters was disabled. We further conclude that, at trial, Bridgewaters raised both his disability and a request for a reasonable accommodation. In these circumstances, the failure of the BHA to make the individualized assessment described above before concluding that Bridgewaters posed a threat to others was error. We vacate the judgment of the Housing Court and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.3

1. Procedural background. On March 22, 2004, the BHA brought an eviction action against Bridgewaters by filing a summary process complaint in the Housing Court. The BHA claimed that Bridgewaters had caused serious physical harm to another tenant, his twin brother. Trial commenced and was concluded on April 22, 2004. On May 17, 2004, the judge issued written findings of fact and conclusions of law, and entered judgment for possession for the BHA.

Bridgewaters, now represented by counsel, moved for reconsideration and for relief from judgment pursuant to Mass. R. Civ. P. 59, 365 Mass. 827 (1974), and Mass. R. Civ. P. 60(b) 365 Mass. 828 (1974). The judge treated the motion as one under rule 59, and denied it, concluding that a reasonable accommodation request had not been raised at trial, and that, because Bridgewaters "took [a] guilty plea to violent activity, no reasonable accommodation [would] be required," citing Peabody Props., Inc. v. Sherman, 418 Mass. 603, 638 N.E.2d 906 (1994).

Bridgewaters filed a notice of appeal, together with motions to waive the appeal bond and costs, and to stay execution pending appeal. One week later, he moved in the Housing Court for relief from the judgment under rule 60(b). After a hearing, the judge denied the motion.

Bridgewaters appealed to a single justice of the Appeals Court for a stay of execution pending appeal. The stay was granted, subject to Bridgewaters's continued treatment for his disability and compliance with the terms of his lease with the BHA. The Appeals Court then affirmed the judgment and the Housing Court judge's orders denying the postjudgment motions, concluding that "an individual who engages in conduct that violates a housing authority's rules and that is significantly inimical to an authority's obligation to provide a physically safe environment for its tenants is not a `qualified handicapped person' entitled to an authority's general obligation to provide reasonable accommodations for its handicapped tenants," and that, "[u]nder that standard," Bridgewaters was not a qualified handicapped person. Boston Hous. Auth. v. Bridgewaters, supra at 768, 871 N.E.2d 1107.

2. Factual background. We summarize the facts found by the judge, supplemented by undisputed facts of record and uncontested affidavits and exhibits considered by the judge in Bridgewaters's posttrial motions. The BHA owns and operates Holgate Apartments, a federally assisted residential complex for the elderly and the disabled, where Bridgewaters resides. His twin brother, Eric, also resided at Holgate, in a different apartment. In the late evening of January 9 or the early morning of January 10, 2004, Bridgewaters assaulted Eric, inside Eric's apartment. As a result of the altercation, Eric, who was paralyzed on the left side of his body due to a stroke he suffered as a child, sustained severe injuries, and temporary paralysis in his right leg.4 After the assault the BHA brought this action; the BHA had not previously attempted to terminate Bridgewaters's tenancy.5

During the trial, Bridgewaters, who was not represented by counsel, testified that he had not initiated the assault, that he had punched his brother once, and had thrown water at him. Bridgewaters also testified that he suffers from a mental disability, which he termed manic depression or bipolar disorder. He stated that he had been prescribed medication, but that he was unmedicated at the time of the assault on the advice of his physician. Bridgewaters also testified that, after the altercation, he had received treatment for his disability and is "in a better situation today" than he was at the time of the assault. The BHA offered no evidence to refute Bridgewaters's testimony about his course of medication or his treatment for disability. The BHA did, however, state that it would not reevaluate its decision to evict Bridgewaters: counsel asserted that the BHA was "not interested in preserving this tenancy" and was "not interested in any sort of mediation [because] of the severity of the crime."

In support of his posttrial motion, Bridgewaters submitted affidavits and exhibits that elaborated on his trial testimony.6 These materials indicate that Bridgewaters had been determined to be disabled by the Social Security Administration and unable to support himself, and that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder.7 At the time of the assault, his medication had been suspended because it caused negative side effects, and he had recently transitioned from his therapist of five years to a new therapist. The only treatment he was receiving for his disabilities at the time of the assault was a weekly psychotherapy session. The documents further disclosed that, after the assault, Bridgewaters was hospitalized as an inpatient in a mental health facility for three weeks, from which he was discharged to the community after his caregivers determined that he was safe to return with adequate support. Finally, the documents disclosed that Bridgewaters was under the care of a physician and a social worker. Both submitted letters stating that Bridgewaters was determined to control his mental illness and that he was receiving appropriate medication and treatment to stabilize his condition. Bridgewaters also submitted a letter from his brother, Eric, stating that the brothers had reconciled.

We reserve for later discussion facts related to whether the judge should have considered Bridgewaters's disability-based defense at trial.

3. Discussion. Because the issue whether Bridgewaters made a reasonable accommodation request arises meaningfully only if the BHA is obligated to entertain his request, we first address whether Bridgewaters's misconduct foreclosed consideration of any reasonable accommodation request.

a. The "direct threat" exception. Much of this case turns on what is known as the "direct threat" exception to a public housing authority's ordinary obligation to accommodate tenants with disabilities. See 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(9) (2000).8 The exception is incorporated in both the Federal regulatory scheme that governs federally assisted public housing authorities, such as the BHA, and in the BHA's own policies. We begin with the Federal scheme, which is expressed in both the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601 et seq. (2000), and regulations promulgated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 24 C.F.R. Part 9 (2008).9,10

In 1988, Congress enacted the FHAA, making it unlawful to "discriminate in the sale or rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any buyer or renter because...

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