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Istre v. Hensley Partnership

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

February 23, 2017




         This civil action is before the Court on defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 37], to which plaintiffs responded [Doc. 44] and defendants replied [Doc. 50]. Also before the Court is plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [Doc. 41], to which defendants responded [Doc. 48] and plaintiffs replied [Doc. 42]. For the reasons contained herein, the Court will grant in part and deny in part defendants' motion for summary judgment, and deny plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment.

         I. Background[1]

         Plaintiff Philip Istre is a resident of Sevier County who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (“MS”) in or around 2007 or 2008 [Doc. 43 p. 2; Doc. 49 p. 2]. Plaintiff William Chretien is also a resident of Sevier County and was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011 [Doc. 43 p. 2; Doc. 49 p. 3]. On or about March 4, 2005, Chretien entered into a residential lease with defendant Hensley Partnership for real property located at Willa View, 428 Keegan Drive, Apartment #28, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee 37863, for a term of four months [Doc. 43 p. 2; Doc. 49 p. 2]. The term of the lease automatically renewed for four-month terms unless otherwise specified by the lessor or lessee [Doc. 43 p. 2; Doc. 49 p. 2]. Istre has resided with Chretien since 2005 [Doc. 43 p. 2; Doc. 49 p. 2]. Defendant Marion Franklin has served as property manager at Willa View since August 3, 2010 [Doc. 43 p. 2; Doc. 49 p. 2].

         On or about July 9, 2013, plaintiffs requested accommodations for Istre's MS. Specifically, plaintiffs asked defendants to designate plaintiffs' assigned parking spot as a handicapped spot, and also to construct a wheelchair ramp permitting ingress and egress from the leased premises [Doc. 43 p. 3-4; Doc. 49 p. 5-6]. Plaintiffs assert that they offered to pay for the construction of the ramp [Doc. 43 p. 4; Doc. 49 p. 6]. Although defendants denied these specific requests, defendants offered to allow for the placement of a portable ramp permitting ingress and egress [Doc. 39 p. 7; Doc. 45 p. 12]. Defendants had also previously offered plaintiffs the use of a handicap-accessible apartment unit, but plaintiffs declined this offer [Doc. 43 p. 3; Doc. 49 p. 5]. Plaintiffs contend that they declined the offer of a handicap-accessible unit in part because Istre was not able to stand on the wooden floors featured in the handicapped-accessible apartment [Doc. 43-11 p. 2; Doc. 43-12 p. 1].

         Also on July 9, 2013, Franklin sent plaintiffs a letter, which stated that defendants had received numerous telephone calls from several tenants with complaints of racial harassment by plaintiffs [Doc. 43-39 p. 20; Doc. 43-15; Doc. 49 p. 9]. The next day, on July 10, 2013, defendants further advised plaintiffs by letter that they had five days to vacate the unit due to late/non-payment of rent [Doc. 43 pp. 5-6; Doc. 49 p. 9]. Plaintiffs do not dispute that rent was unpaid at this time [Doc. 45 p. 5]. Plaintiffs subsequently paid the back rent, and defendants allowed them to remain in the unit [Doc. 43 pp. 5-6; Doc. 49 p. 10].

         About three months later, in October 2013, plaintiffs renewed their requests for a designated handicapped parking spot and that they be permitted to install a permanent ramp [Doc. 43-17 pp. 2-3]. Defendants again denied these specific requests [Doc. 43 p. 6; Doc. 49 p. 10]. Defendants did, however, move plaintiffs' parking spot and place yellow stripes outlining the parking spot and an area next to the spot [Doc. 43 p. 6; Doc. 49 p. 11].

         Subsequently, in May 2014, defendants allegedly accused plaintiffs of having an inoperable vehicle and demanded its removal, threatening to tow the vehicle if it were not removed [Doc. 43-37 pp. 15-16]. According to plaintiffs, defendants treated plaintiffs differently in this situation from other tenants [Id. at 17]. The next month, in June 2014, plaintiffs again requested a permanent ramp and a designated handicapped parking space [Doc. 43-23 pp. 2-3]. Defendants again denied the specific requests, but offered, in addition to a portable ramp, to provide a concrete bucket handicapped sign that plaintiffs could move in and out of their parking space in lieu of a designated handicapped parking spot [Id.].

         The issue of untimely rent payments arose again in December, 2014. Defendants assert that Istre promised to pay the December rent by December 12, 2014, which he failed to do [Doc. 38-14 p. 49]. Istre states that he only promised to try and pay rent by December 12, 2014, as opposed to promising to actually pay it [Doc. 45 p. 6].

         On December 22, 2014, Franklin provided plaintiffs with an eviction notice. [Doc. 38-5]. As grounds, the final eviction notice provided: (1) “[l]ate/non-payment of rent;” (2) “[n]on-payment of rent promised to pay by 12/12/14 per Philip [Istre] $600 w/ late [fee];” (3) “[d]isorderly conduct;” (4) “[h]arassment of multiple tenants who have in the past occupied WV34, WV35, WV 29, or still do;” (5) “[r]epeated rule violations;” (6) “[v]andalism - damage to ceiling in kitchen living area from broom/mop;” and (7) “refusing pest control A/C filter change” [Id.]. Plaintiffs submit that when they contacted Franklin regarding the eviction, Franklin told them that they were being evicted because “[Istre] had pushed her and the tenants for the last time, ” and that she was “tired of all the phone calls from [Istre] in general” [Doc. 47-33 p. 34].

         Plaintiffs subsequently initiated the instant action, asserting claims for violations of the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et seq.; Tennessee common law breach of contract; violations of the Landlord Tenant Act, Tenn. Code. Ann. § 66-28-101, et seq.; and Tennessee common law conspiracy [Doc. 1]. Defendants moved for summary judgment as to all claims [Doc. 37]. Plaintiffs then moved for partial summary judgment [Doc. 41].

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issues of material fact exist. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 n.2 (1986); Moore v. Phillip Morris Cos., 8 F.3d 335, 339 (6th Cir. 1993). All facts and all inferences to be drawn therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Burchett v. Kiefer, 301 F.3d 937, 942 (6th Cir. 2002).

         “Once the moving party presents evidence sufficient to support a motion under Rule 56, the nonmoving party is not entitled to a trial merely on the basis of allegations.” Curtis Through Curtis v. Universal Match Corp., 778 F.Supp. 1421, 1423 (E.D. Tenn. 1991) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 317). The plaintiff must offer “concrete evidence from which a reasonable juror could return a verdict in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986). “[M]ere conclusory and unsupported allegations, rooted in speculation, do not meet that burden.” Bell v. Ohio State Univ., 351 F.3d 240, 253 (6th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). Summary judgment may not be defeated “based on rumors, conclusory allegations, or subjective beliefs.” Hein v. All Am. Plywood Co., 232 F.3d 482, 488 (6th Cir. 2000). To establish a genuine issue as to the existence of a particular element, the non-moving party must point to evidence in the record upon which a reasonable finder of fact could find in its favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The genuine issue must also be material; that is, it must involve facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Hein, 232 F.3d at 488.

         The Court's function at the point of summary judgment is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper question for the factfinder. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. The Court does not weigh the evidence or determine the truth of the matter. Id. at 249. Nor does the Court search the record “to establish that it is bereft of a genuine issue of material fact.” Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479-80 (6th Cir. 1989). Thus, “the inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is a need for a trial-whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.

         Because there are cross-motions for summary judgment before the Court, for the claims where both parties have moved for summary judgment, the Court must look at the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, and also look at the evidence in the light most favorable to defendant, to determine whether either party is entitled to summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus., 475 U.S. at 587; Burchett, 301 F.3d at 942.

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiffs and defendants each moved for summary judgment on the FHA claim based on failure to reasonably accommodate/ permit modification. Defendants also moved for summary judgment on all additional claims. The Court will discuss each claim in turn.[2]

         A. Failure to Provide Reasonable Accommodation/Modification

         The parties each moved for summary judgment on the failure to reasonably accommodate/permit modification claim. Plaintiffs argue that by refusing to construct a permanent ramp at plaintiffs' expense, and by refusing to designate plaintiffs' parking spot as a handicapped spot, defendants failed as a matter of law to follow the mandates of the FHA. Defendants counter by arguing that plaintiffs' claims fail as a matter of law because the requests were not reasonable, and that defendants offered to make other reasonable accommodations, specifically the portable ramp, new designated parking space, cement handicapped sign, and the use of a handicapped apartment unit.

         The FHA prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or handicap. See 42 U.S.C. § 3604. The FHA defines “handicap” with respect to a person as “(1) a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities; (2) a record of having such an impairment, or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment.” Id. § 3602(h).

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(A), discrimination includes:
a refusal to permit, at the expense of the handicapped person, reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises except that, in the case of a rental, the landlord may where it is reasonable to do so condition permission for a modification on the renter agreeing to restore the interior of the premises to the condition that existed before the modification, reasonable wear and tear excepted.

Id. § 3604(f)(3)(A). Furthermore, pursuant to § 3604(f)(3)(B), discrimination also includes:

a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal ...

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