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Summers v. City of Fitchburg

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

October 8, 2019

JEFFREY D. SUMMERS and JEFFREY'S HOUSE INC., Plaintiffs, Appellants,
CITY OF FITCHBURG ET AL., Defendants, Appellees.


          Marcus L. Scott, with whom Barbara Collins and ScottCollins, LLP were on brief, for appellants.

          Gregor A. Pagnini, with whom Leonard H. Kesten, Deidre Brennan Regan, and Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten, LLP were on brief, for appellees.

          Maura Healey, Attorney General, and Julie E. Green, Assistant Attorney General, on brief for Commonwealth of Massachusetts, amicus curiae.

          Before Barron, Selya, and Boudin, Circuit Judges.


         This appeal arises from the enforcement of a state law by the City of Fitchburg (the City). That law requires the plaintiffs to install sprinklers in the four sober houses that they operate for recovering addicts. The plaintiffs claim that the City's refusal to exempt the sober houses from the sprinkler requirement violates the reasonable accommodation provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213, and the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3631, as amended by the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA). The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants - the City and a coterie of municipal officials - on the ground that the plaintiffs failed to show that an exemption from the sprinkler requirement was either reasonable or necessary to allow recovering addicts to live in and benefit from the sober houses. Discerning no error in the district court's conclusion that the requested accommodation was not reasonable, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         We briefly rehearse the relevant events and travel of the case, taking the facts and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most agreeable to the non-moving parties (here, the plaintiffs). See Avery v. Hughes, 661 F.3d 690, 693 (1st Cir. 2011).

         Plaintiffs-appellants Jeffrey D. Summers and his nonprofit organization, Jeffrey's House, Inc., operate four sober houses in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. These facilities provide supportive residences for individuals recovering from alcohol and/or drug addiction. Starting in 2013, municipal officials began to enforce a variety of zoning and building-code provisions that they thought the plaintiffs were violating. As an example, at least three of the sober houses were apparently operating in violation of the use restrictions set forth in the City's zoning ordinance. At the plaintiffs' request, the City granted an accommodation under the ADA and the FHAA to allow the plaintiffs to operate those sober houses despite the use restrictions.

         In July of 2014, municipal officials informed the plaintiffs that they were required, pursuant to a state law that applies to lodging or boarding houses with six or more unrelated residents, to install sprinkler systems in the three sober houses they were then operating. See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 148, § 26H (the Sprinkler Law). The plaintiffs were given six months to bring their sober houses into compliance but did not do so. Consequently, the City fined them $1, 000 and instituted an enforcement action in the local housing court. Cf. id. § 27 (authorizing a fine for "[a]ny owner of a building who, within six months after having received an order from the marshal under section twenty-six, fails to comply with the requirement of such order").

         At a housing court hearing in the summer of 2015, the plaintiffs suggested that, pending resolution of the dispute over the sprinkler requirement, they would reduce the occupancy of each sober house to five or fewer residents (thus rendering the Sprinkler Law inapplicable). Municipal officials asked the plaintiffs to memorialize this suggestion in writing and agree to allow sporadic inspections to verify the reduced occupancy. At that point, the plaintiffs balked: they reneged on the offer, asserting that the Sprinkler Law did not apply to sober houses, that periodic inspections would disrupt the residents, and that the cost of sprinklers would be prohibitive.

         This dispute simmered until September 14, 2015, when the plaintiffs sued the City and a number of municipal officials in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Their complaint raised a gallimaufry of federal and state claims focused on the defendants' efforts to enforce the zoning ordinance and building code. The district court dismissed most of the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (including the claims of disparate treatment and disparate impact under both the ADA and the FHAA) but allowed the plaintiffs to proceed with their reasonable accommodation claims under the same statutes.

         After the completion of discovery, the district court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the remaining claims. As to the reasonable accommodation claims, the court concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to show that their myriad concerns about the sprinkler requirement (including its cost and the specter of disruption to residents from sporadic inspections) rendered an accommodation to the Sprinkler Law either reasonable or necessary. The court also ...

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