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Army base residents settle disability bias claim against contractor.

In the first suit of its kind since the military privatized base housing, a group of military families with disabled members has settled with the private contractor that operated housing on their Army base over its practice of discrimination against people with disabilities. (Parents Against Disability Discrimination v. Equity Residential, No. C045267 RBL (W.D. Wash. Sept. 27, 2005).)

"The settlement is important because it's the first time someone has gone after private managers of military housing," said Roger Heller, plaintiff lead counsel and staff attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, a national nonprofit public-interest law center in Oakland, California.

"With so many military bases privatized now, this is going to be a big issue. Some of the companies that have private contracts with the government now have to be on the lookout for suits like this, and we'd hope that they'd change their behavior without having to be sued," Heller said.

In 1996, Congress passed the Military Housing Privatization Initiative to allow private contractors to repair, renovate, and build military family housing. In 2002, the joint venture of Equity Residential and Lincoln Property--which manages about 300,000 homes across the country--began managing housing at Fort Lewis, Washington, the Army's West Coast headquarters.

Fort Lewis has an on-site advanced medical facility. Under the Exceptional Family Member Program, the Army tries to station military families with disabled members on bases with such facilities. Fort Lewis has a relatively high population of families with disabled members--about 13 percent, or 3,000 people. These families often choose to live on base to be close to the medical facility, and the Army's medical insurance program encourages this practice, as it is cheaper for the residents to be treated there. All military families living on base had to rent from Equity, and the housing allowance automatically withdrawn from a soldier's paycheck each month went directly to Equity.

But the plaintiffs claimed that Equity's treatment of its tenants violated federal and state discrimination laws, as it made unlawful inquiries about tenants' disabilities, harassed and intimidated them, and refused to rent to families with disabled members. For example, one fibromyalgia plaintiff, who uses a motorized scooter, lived in a house with interior doors and a hallway too narrow for the scooter--but Equity refused to make physical modifications. Another plaintiff with severe asthma and other physical disabilities, who also has two children with learning disabilities, was illegally required to disclose the disability status of all family members and provide confidential medical records before she could have the keys to her new house.

Parents Against Disability Discrimination, a group of families stationed at Fort Lewis who have family members with disabilities, filed a class action against Equity, claiming its conduct violated the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, provisions of the U.S. Constitution, and state antidiscrimination laws. They sought an injunction to force Equity "to adopt fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory policies, practices, and procedures in its provision of on-post housing."

The settlement terms will improve access to housing, public areas, and other services at Fort Lewis for current and future residents with disabilities. The settlement ensures that ultimately 10 percent of base-housing units are adaptable for use by the disabled, and common areas-such as sidewalks, playgrounds, and parks--will be made frilly accessible. It establishes a less burdensome process for requesting structural modifications and prevents Equity from retaliating against those who ask for them.

Equity may not require new applicants for housing to disclose information about any family members' disabilities as a condition of tenancy, and it will train its management staff in the terms of the settlement agreement, fair housing and disability rights laws, and disability awareness and sensitivity. The agreement also establishes a resident liaison and monitoring and enforcement measures.

"This settlement is significant for three reasons," said Victoria Ni, a staff attorney with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, which also represented the plaintiffs. "First, the suit was the first in the country to allege widespread discrimination against disabled tenants living in military housing managed by a private contractor. Second, an especially large number of families with a disabled family member live on base at Fort Lewis because of the base's proximity to a specialized medical center, so the settlement will directly help thousands of people." Third, because Equity provides a lot of military housing, it should implement these best practices on other bases, Ni said.

The settlement "serves as a model that other military bases that are privately managed can follow as far as access goes," said Heller. "And maybe some of what was accomplished in that settlement could apply outside the military in other housing contexts."
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Author:Porter, Rebecca
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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