When a family is experiencing an emergency, a few things could be worse than being unable to stay in the comfort of one’s own home. Unfortunately, this is a reality for many families. Just recently, the Merrimack Valley experience devastating gas explosions which displaced many families.

Some families face this issue more permanently, however, as they struggle with homelessness: roughly 3500 people are currently served by the emergency assistance program of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. But to what extent is that assistance available, particularly when it comes to families who fall under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)? This was an issue addressed in a recent Supreme Judicial Court case, Garcia v. Department of Housing and Community Development.

The case involved a class action suit, brought by plaintiffs who contended that the department failed to promptly place the plaintiff families in shelters within 20 miles of their home communities, which would have better allowed the plaintiffs to be restored to those communities as soon as possible. The lawsuit also alleged that the department failed to comply with the ADA, among other federal and state laws, in regards to plaintiffs’ children with disabilities. The Court explained that in recent years, the Department greatly expanded the number of shelter beds provided across Massachusetts and used motel placements as a last resort only when overflow needs require it, or in limited exigent circumstances. According to the plaintiffs, this practice resulted in preventing them from receiving adequate accommodations for family members who were protected by the ADA.

At the trial level, the plaintiffs were certified as part of a class action suit by the judge. Before the completion of the discovery process, the plaintiffs asked the court for a class-wide preliminary injunction, ordering the Department to use motels to the extent necessary in order to comply with the 20-mile statutory requirement and provide adequate accommodations. The judge allowed the injunction in part, as applied to participants whose ADA accommodation requests had been approved by DHCD, but not yet implemented, and whose requests could be satisfied by a motel placement. The judge denied the injunction as to any other members of the class or claims.

The trial judge then concluded that DHCD likely had violated regulations under the ADA, requiring public entities to provide reasonable accommodations in order to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability and prohibiting public entities from providing services or siting facilities in a manner that has the effect of discriminating on the basis of disability.

On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court first discussed the preliminary injunction. “The judge presumed that if an [emergency assistance] participant had requested a transfer as part of an ADA accommodation, and [the Department] agreed to grant the transfer ‘when administratively feasible,’ then the shelter unit where the [emergency assistance] participant resides in the interim is ‘ADA noncompliant[,]’” the Court stated. “His conclusion, however, rested on the incorrect assumption that any delay in providing a reasonable accommodation is per se unlawful. The judge also concluded that DHCD’s motel policy likely violates two other regulations, which prohibit public entities from providing services or siting facilities in a manner that has the effect of discriminating on the basis of disability…His conclusion with regard to these two regulations was premised on a factual predicate that is not supported by the record.”

The Court noted that what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” is a factual question which must be decided on a case-by-case basis. Likewise, in this context, “[d]etermining whether unreasonable delay has occurred depends on the specific circumstances, including the length of delay, and whether the defendant has provided alternative accommodations in the interim,” the Court stated. It was error for the trial judge to rule that only an immediate transfer would constitute a reasonable accommodation, the Court held, especially on a limited preliminary record. The Court vacated the trial judge’s order to allow the injunction.

If you have questions or concerns about issues involving family law, domestic relations, or other legal issues, you should contact a competent attorney. Our divorce, family, and domestic relations attorneys may be able to work on your behalf to handle your case. Contact our offices by phone at 978-225-9030 during business hours to schedule a free consultation. We will respond to you as soon as possible.