Chronic Complainers Notch Big Win Against Landlords

by James A. Bacon

Whether you agree or disagree with Attorney General Mark Herring’s position on the case, a dispute between an unnamed individual with mental health issues and her Manassas landlords, Gia and Ernest Hairston, makes a fascinating case study. In a press release, Herring touts the outcome — the landlords paying the tenant $60,000 in compensation — as a victory for the disabled. Based upon upon the facts provided in the press release, it looks more like a victory for chronic complainers.

Here are the facts as contained in a Herring press release issued today. The tenant rented a condominium unit from the Hairstons in the summer of 2018. She told Mr. Hairston that she lived with a mental health condition that was currently under control. After moving in, she complained about the air conditioning system on very hot days and made requests for other repairs.

Mr. Hairston became frustrated by the maintenance requests, telling her that “any adult” would know better and that she was being “difficult” and “a problem.” He said the maintenance concerns were “all in her head.” To document the necessity for the repair requests, the tenant asked that any time the Hairstons came to the unit that her therapist or caseworker be present. After agreeing initially, Mr. Hairston then terminated her lease, giving her 90 days to move.

Mr. Hairston explained that the reason for the termination was because the tenant had “special needs” and couldn’t “understand, cope, or compromise.” Specifically, he stated: “[Y]ou needing to be with your therapist to talk to us whether through text, email or in person to handle business is a special accommodation whether you think it is or not. Adults and people that function normally without special needs don’t require that type of accommodation. It’s ok that you have these special needs. We just can’t accommodate you. You will be a problem for us. So it’s best you move. […] You have a hard time understanding, coping and compromising. It’s best we just part ways as soon as possible.

The tenant did move out — and filed a complaint of housing discrimination. An investigation by the Virginia Fair Housing Office found that the Hairstons had engaged in illegal discrimination by refusing to rent to the tenant based on disability, making discriminatory statements, and imposing discriminatory terms and conditions. The case was passed on to the AG’s Office of Civil Rights.

The parties agreed to a settlement in which the Hairstons paid the tenant $60,000 as compensation, donated $1,500 to the nonprofit Action in Community Through Service, and, as a condition of staying landlords, committed to attending fair housing training sessions for three years.

“Virginia tenants with disabilities deserve to be treated the same as any other tenants, without the fear of being discriminated against or treated poorly by their landlords,” said Herring in his press release. “Demeaning and outdated stereotypes about Virginians with mental illness have no place in housing transactions or frankly anywhere else in the Commonwealth. I hope this sends a strong message to all Virginia landlords.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The brief narrative in the press release omits crucial bits of information. How reasonable were the tenant’s requests for repairs? The only details proffered in the press release concerned the air conditioning. Apparently, the unit (or system) failed to keep the apartment sufficiently cooled a few days out of the year. Was the tenant making mountains out of molehills? Did she make incessant demands to fix trivial problems? The press release does not provide those specifics. Evidently, the Hairstons believed the complaints lacked merit.

Here is the central question: did the Hairstons terminate the lease because the tenant had a mental disability or because she was an exceedingly difficult tenant who happened to have a mental disability? “You have a hard time understanding, coping and compromising,” he said, apparently laboring under the illusion that he was not obligated to accede to meritless demands. 

The tenant brought the disability issue into the picture when she insisted upon scheduling meetings when her therapist or caseworker could be available. Apparently, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After having his patience tried from previous encounters, Mr. Hairston was unwilling to accommodate that particular request.

He didn’t terminate the lease because the tenant had mental health issues; he terminated the lease because she was an exceedingly difficult tenant. The issue gets murky because, apparently, it was her mental health issues that caused her to be difficult. We don’t know this for certain because we don’t get the Hairstons’ side of the story, and we don’t know the precise nature of the tenant’s mental-health issues. But reading between the lines of Herring’s account, the Hairstons found her to be a problem tenant.

If my conjecture is accurate — and I’m willing to change my mind in light of additional information — Herring notched a big win for whiners and complainers. Here’s my advice to chronic kvetchers in disputes with their landlords: find a therapist, claim a disability, then threaten to sic the Fair Housing Office on them. The prospect of a $60,000 fine (plus legal fees) might persuade them to accommodate your demands.

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20 responses to “Chronic Complainers Notch Big Win Against Landlords”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “Adults and people that function normally without special needs don’t require that that type of accommodation. It’s ok that you have these special needs. We just can’t accommodate you.”

    Really, JAB, you are defending this? If the “special needs” included a wheel chair, perhaps you would be more understanding…? What would happen if the tenant was a Iraqi War vet with PTSD? Would you support them then…??

    1. James Kiser Avatar
      James Kiser

      I am curious as to how far you think a landlord should be forced to accommodate someone’s disabilities ?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        as far as the law says…. right?

        1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
          Eric the half a troll

          Beat me to it…

        2. James Kiser Avatar
          James Kiser

          Which stops where ? Just how far is a landlord required to go? My point is your property is no longer yours because “govt” has decided they will force you to accommodate their requirements which are needed to buy votes. She could have claimed that according to the therapist that the color of carpet “triggered” her bad feelings and there fore needed to be changed.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            well, you can try to figure it out between the two of you or let the law do it… right?

            For the record, I hew to the strict word of the law, not something a complainer creates.

            in terms of what to do with your own property – there are laws about that also even if you don’t rent… and then there are additional – and you know this before you choose to rent.

            you do have the right to own property, but you do not have the unfettered right to do whatever you wish with it -anyhow, even if you don’rent.

        3. tmtfairfax Avatar

          That’s probably not that far unless the parties agreed in advance to make special accommodations.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    yep…. they invoked the phrase “special needs” in a way that it could be interpreted as handicapped and that was , as they say, “all she wrote”.

    I don’t envy landlords. It’s a tough gig and not for everyone who wants to engage in commerce…..or investing… but it’s the gig.

    1. dick dyas Avatar
      dick dyas

      That doomed them. Just say the lease will not be renewed.
      Its a new world. Learn how to navigate it.

  3. how_it_works Avatar

    You’ve heard of “Florida Man”? Now meet “Manassas Woman”.

  4. tmtfairfax Avatar

    Last summer, before we sold our rental house, the tenant called to say the A/C was not working. We called a contractor immediately and were able to have it fixed the next day. A landlord should make basic repairs. Some won’t. That’s wrong.

    On the other hand, tenants can make unreasonable demands. To go to Eric’s example, a landlord would, of course, not be required to make changes to an existing structure to accommodate a wheelchair, much less buy one for the tenant. Ditto for changing sink fixtures to accommodate a wheelchair.

    Similarly, a tenant could make unreasonable and unsupported claims about maintenance needs. Those needs not be accommodated. And, at some point, probably grounds for eviction.

    1. how_it_works Avatar

      Any landlord with a brain has sold their rental property already, or it’s on the market.

    2. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      My example was poorly phrased. I did not mean to suggest that the landlord would need to provide a wheelchair. I meant that the tenant’s “special need” was that they were in a wheelchair. I suspect then that JAB would be more supportive. The issue here is that the tenant’s requests were not unreasonable and the landlord evicted her specifically because of her condition – legal or no (and apparently it is not), that is just wrong as is siding with the landlord in this case.

  5. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Herring’s office did not find that the landlord discriminated against the tenant. That finding was made by the Virginia Fair Housing Office, which is a division of the Dept. of Professional and Occupational Regulation.

    The landlord was pretty clear why he was terminating the lease. “It’s ok that you have these special needs. We just can’t accommodate you. You will be a problem for us. So it’s best you move.”
    Here is what the Fair Housing Office says about providing special accomodations:

    “Fair Housing Law requires housing providers to accommodate a person with a disability by changing or modifying a rule, policy, or practice when doing so is necessary to give the disabledperson equal opportunity to use and enjoy his or her unit.”

    Pretty clear case, it seems to me.

    1. Yes. It was a mistake for the landlord to make an issue of her disability and her need to have her therapist at meetings/contacts.

      If he had simply notified her that her lease would not be renewed and, if asked, stated that the reason was she continuously made unreasonable/impossible demands regarding the upkeep of her apartment, then she may not have had an actionable case.

    2. tmtfairfax Avatar

      The landlord does seem to have some problematic DNA. But if the demands for maintenance were not supported by facts or went beyond what is reasonable maintenance under the circumstances, they would seem to constitute some form of harassment.

      I can see the State requiring a landlord to change the rent due date by a few days if the tenant receipt of disability payments did not easily permit payment on the expected due date or to accept payment by a third party. But the State cannot force a landlord to install a wheelchair lift, as that would be a taking of property without due process. A closer case might be forcing the landlord to all such a lift to be installed so long as it did not cause structural or permanent damage and so long as the premises was returned to its original state when the tenant moved out.

    3. LarrytheG Avatar

      I think when the landlord started using the phrase “special needs”, they wandered into problematic
      territory as opposed to not being able to meet the “needs” of a renter in a more generic sense – like heat or air not kept in good repair… plumbing issues not resolved, etc.

      Apparently, the landlords WILLINGLY agreed to cough up 60K rather than use it for a legal fight. So something must have convinced them the 60K was cheaper than the alternative?

      Sometimes landlords are hard to get along with also – so not easy to tell who was the bigger pain in the butt, I’d be checking with the other tenants also and maybe that’s what happened and the landlords saw the handwriting on the wall.. who knows?

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Why shouldn’t they notch big wins against landlords? They notch big wins in the Conservative blogosphere.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      A friend had several homes he used to rent. When one became vacant, he did not post a sign or do an Ad, he just let his friends know to spread the word.

      Then he’d get calls and his answer was “how to do know my friend ” and ‘what are you looking for” and where do you live now and why are you moving….. and depending… he might have what they wanted or it was just rented or down for major renovation, etc… not available…

      He “discriminated” out the wazoo but not on the basis of race, creed, color, or any of the legal “no-nos” .

      He usually got good tenants…

  7. Cassie Gentry Avatar
    Cassie Gentry

    The reality that shines through in this case, and in similar situations, is that people with “mental health issues” are often unreasonable assholes who cause problems for whoever they cross paths with, whether landlords, employers, merchants, etc. Some people are just defective personalities who cannot get along, no matter how reasonable people may be, and that is because their defect is they are asocial personalities. Landlords really should be free to avoid people like this because the idea of providing equal opportunities to people who are NOT EQUAL is a grotesque imposition on landlords, employers, merchants,etc. I have intersected with such people over the years as a business person and also as an employer, and I can tell you that dealing with one of these who enters your orb is like the couple portrayed in the movie: “Pacific Heights”. The old idea that people with “mental health issues” were possessed by the devil is more accurate than today’s social justice twaddle. Such people deserve sympathy and compassion, but what they don’t deserve is being granted a position of power.

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