Oxford House, Inc. v. City of Dothan

Decision Date06 December 2022
Docket Number1:21-cv-655-RAH [WO]
PartiesOXFORD HOUSE, INC., et al., Plaintiffs, v. CITY OF DOTHAN, ALABAMA, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Alabama

OXFORD HOUSE, INC., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.

CITY OF DOTHAN, ALABAMA, Defendant.

No. 1:21-cv-655-RAH [WO]

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division

December 6, 2022


MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

R. AUSTIN HUFFAKER, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

INTRODUCTION

“Oxford House” is a sober living concept in addiction recovery premised on a democratically run, self-supporting, and drug-free home[1] consisting of six to fifteen unrelated residents. In other words, an Oxford House is an unincorporated association of unrelated individuals who share a common bond of addiction recovery. Typically, an Oxford House residence will enter into a charter with Oxford House, Inc. (OHI), which will allow the house to operate under OHI's 501(c)(3) umbrella and to receive support, education, assistance, and monitoring from OHI.

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The concept requires, among others, that residents of an Oxford House elect officers, including a president, vice-president, treasurer, comptroller, and secretary; that associational names be used for contracts such as leases, bank accounts, and utilities; that each house obtains a federal employer identification number; and that each house pay chapter dues and conduct regular weekly meetings and occasional special meetings where treasurer's reports are presented.

While the litigation history surrounding the Oxford House concept often has involved zoning issues, this lawsuit presents a novel issue concerning a utilities account application. When two new Dothan-based Oxford Houses first approached the City of Dothan about opening utilities accounts under their Oxford House associational names using federal employer identification numbers (EIN), the City required that they first present a business license, which the City was willing to provide free of charge as it did with all non-profit associations. However, the Oxford Houses did not believe they should be required to obtain business licenses, even free ones, claiming they are not businesses but rather family units. Therefore they refused the City's request. With no business licenses in hand, the Oxford Houses were unable to open utilities accounts in their associational (that is, Oxford House) names.

OHI and the Dothan-based Oxford Houses (collectively, the Plaintiffs or Oxford Houses) then sued the City, claiming the City had discriminated against them

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based on disability in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The Plaintiffs then filed an Amended Complaint (Doc. 29), which is the operative complaint. Both sides have moved for summary judgment, and the issues have been fully briefed. For the reasons explained below, the Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment is due to be DENIED, and the City's motion for summary judgment is due to be GRANTED.

JURISDICTION AND VENUE

The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue, and there are adequate allegations to support both. See 28 U.S.C. § 1391. The City, however, alleges that the Plaintiffs lack Article III standing, so subject matter jurisdiction is contested.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Around July 28, 2021, Vanessa Phelps and Wesley Ford, both of whom were employed by OHI and were not to become residents of any Dothan-based Oxford House, applied with the City to initiate utility service at a Dothan residential address. Of key importance to the current dispute, they requested the City to place the account in the name of Oxford House-Dothan, and not in the name of any individual person. (See Doc. 16-3 at 12.) Because Phelps and Ford applied for service in Oxford House-Dothan's associational name, provided an EIN and not a personal social security number, and gave organizational email addresses for contact information, the City

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informed them that they would first need to provide a business license, which the City would provide free of charge to them as it did with other non-profit organizations, and in particular, other group homes. According to the City, a business license was required per the City's regulations and because the information in the licenses concerning responsible persons assisted the City in later collecting on delinquent accounts.[2]

Instead of accepting the City's offer of a free business license, OHI requested an accommodation in that Oxford House-Dothan and all future Oxford Houses be exempted from complying with the City's business license requirement. The City declined the request, stating among other reasons that the license requirement applied equally to all organizations, including organizations with purposes akin to those of an Oxford House.

Undeterred, Phelps applied for another utilities account in the name of a newly established Oxford House, this time named Oxford House-Coop. Like with Oxford House-Dothan, Phelps refused the City's offer of a free business license. Therefore, Phelps was unable to open a utilities account in the name of Oxford House-Coop.

Phelps and Ford then approached the landlord/owner of the two houses and obtained the landlord's agreement to apply for utilities in her own name. The

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landlord did so, and the City accepted her account applications and opened the accounts. Since then, the City has provided uninterrupted utility service at both Oxford House locations, and both houses have remained fully occupied and operational in the Oxford House concept.

But that was not the end. In early December 2021, Phelps applied for a utilities account for a third Oxford House location in Dothan, named Oxford House-Dodge. The same result occurred. Rebuffed again, Phelps accepted the landlord's offer to apply for the utilities in his individual name. But this time, the application was withdrawn after a directive from OHI's legal counsel.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

“Summary judgment is proper if the evidence shows ‘that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Hornsby-Culpepper v. Ware, 906 F.3d 1302, 1311 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). “[A] court generally must ‘view all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing summary judgment.'” Fla. Int'l Univ. Bd. of Trs. v. Fla. Nat'l Univ., Inc., 830 F.3d 1242, 1252 (11th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). However, “conclusory allegations without specific supporting facts have no probative value.” Jefferson v. Sewon Am., Inc., 891 F.3d 911, 924-25 (11th Cir. 2018) (citation omitted). If the record, taken as a whole, “could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party,” then there is no genuine

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dispute as to any material fact. Hornsby-Culpepper, 906 F.3d at 1311 (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)).

The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and the movant must identify the portions of the record which support this proposition. Id. (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). Moreover, the movant may carry this burden “by demonstrating that the nonmoving party has failed to present sufficient evidence to support an essential element of the case.” Id. The burden then shifts to the non-moving party to establish, “by going beyond the pleadings, that a genuine issue of material fact exists.” Id. at 1311-12.

A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the plaintiff produces evidence that would allow a reasonable factfinder to return a verdict in his favor such that summary judgment is not warranted. See Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomm., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) (per curiam). “The mere existence of some factual dispute will not defeat summary judgment unless that factual dispute is material to an issue affecting the outcome of the case.” McCormick v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 333 F.3d 1234, 1243 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam) (citation omitted). However, disputes involving material facts are relevant, and materiality is determined by the substantive law applicable to the case. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

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“In practice, ‘cross motions for summary judgment may be probative of the nonexistence of a factual dispute. . . .'” Ga. State Conf. of the NAACP v. Fayette Cnty. Bd. of Comm 'rs, 775 F.3d 1336, 1345 (11th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). But “the mere filing of cross motions for summary judgment d[oes] not warrant the entry of summary judgment.” Id. (citation omitted).

DISCUSSION

The Plaintiffs bring two claims under the Fair Housing Act: intentional discrimination and failure to accommodate. The City raises several arguments in its summary judgment motion on both claims, ranging from challenges based on standing to evidentiary ones focused on the Plaintiffs' inability to meet their prima facie case. On these same key facts, the Plaintiffs seek summary judgment on the failure to accommodate claim. The Court will address these in turn.

A. Standing

The City argues the Plaintiffs lack Article III standing because they have failed to establish a direct injury or injury to the individual residents of the Oxford Houses. The Plaintiffs respond that they have standing because OHI has suffered direct injuries and has associational standing due to the injuries suffered by the residents of each Oxford House.

Article III of the Constitution limits the authority of federal courts, as courts can only decide “cases” and “controversies.” Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 559 (1992).

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For a dispute to be within the power (the subject-matter jurisdiction) of a federal court, the plaintiff must have standing-that is, the plaintiff must have alleged a sufficient interest in the dispute. This “irreducible constitutional minimum” of standing has three elements: (1) the plaintiff has suffered a concrete injury; (2) that injury is fairly traceable to actions of the defendant; and (3) it must be...

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