“Wants” vs. “Needs” and the Fair Housing Amendments Act

Vorchheimer v. The Philadelphian Owners Association, 903 F.3d 100 (3d Cir. 2018).  Today’s opinion by Judge Bibas focuses on what is “necessary” for purposes of the Fair Housing Amendments Act, 42 U.S.C. §3604(f).  That section prohibits discrimination against any person in housing, and defines “discrimination” as including “a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

Plaintiff has certain disabilities that required her to use a rolling walker to get around.  She owned a condominium unit at The Philadelphian.  She used her walker to get from her unit to the condominium’s lobby, and then a cane to get from the lobby to the front of the building, where she had a reserved parking space.  Plaintiff was unable to lift or fold the walker, or to put it into her car.  So she began to leave the walker in the building’s lobby until she returned.

The building found that unsatisfactory and stored the walker so that it was not sitting in the lobby.  Plaintiff objected to that.  Defendant offered four alternatives to leaving the walker in the lobby:  it could be stored and given to her when she returned (she could even call in advance to have the walker waiting), building personnel could deliver the walker to plaintiff’s car before she got out of the vehicle, a doorman could put the walker into and take it out of plaintiff’s trunk, or plaintiff could begin to park in the building’s garage, which had valet parking, and leave the walker near the valet station.  Plaintiff rejected all those options and brought suit.  Her pleading itself described those alternatives and the fact that defendant had offered them.

The District Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss and, today, the Third Circuit, applying de novo review as required in the motion to dismiss context, affirmed.  Judge Bibas offered a lengthy disquisition about what is “necessary,” the essence of which was that “‘[n]ecessary’ means required, indispensable, essential.”  Under that definition, leaving the walker in the lobby was not “necessary,” though plaintiff evidently “preferred” that.  And since the building’s alternatives “satisfie[d] the goal of equal housing opportunity” for plaintiff, she lost her case.  And the grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim was proper because the Complaint itself described the alternatives offered.  Judge Bibas also cited cases from the Third Circuit and other Courts of Appeal to support the result here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the depth of the discussion of “necessity” and his comparison of “wants” and “needs,” Judge Bibas quoted a famed extra-legal authority, the Rolling Stones.  That group’s song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” includes these lyrics:  “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes, you might find/You get what you need.”  (A quick Westlaw search shows that these same lyrics have been invoked in a few other cases, including by several State Supreme Courts, the D.C. Circuit, and others, so Judge Bibas is not the first to offer this citation).  Plaintiff was offered what she needed, so it was not “necessary” that she get what she wanted.