Parking and Requests for Accommodation for a Disability

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By Jillian M. Wright, Esq.

Parking requests to accommodate a disability bring about a particular set of issues and questions.  What requests are reasonable? If the board deems a request reasonable, who pays for the accommodation, if a cost is involved? What if parking spots are so limited in the community that accommodating the request seems impossible? What to do?

When in receipt of an accommodation request, a board is strongly encouraged to engage in an interactive process and make a good faith effort to consider the following when deciding how to handle the request:

Does the requesting party have a qualifying disability?

If someone has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits a major life activity like walking, talking, hearing, seeing, breathing, learning, performing manual tasks or caring for themselves, then federal law considers them disabled. State law offers broader protection; disability is defined as an impairment that makes performance of a major life activity “difficult.” If a requesting party’s disability is obvious, e.g., they use a wheelchair, then it could be considered discriminatory to ask for verification of the disability.

Does the requesting party have a disabled person placard or license plate?

Oftentimes, when requesting a parking accommodation the requesting party will have a disabled person placard from the DMV. Presuming the plate or placard is current and valid, then this should constitute sufficient verification of a disability related to use of a vehicle

Is the request reasonable?

Every community’s parking situation differs and so too will the reasonableness of a request for accommodation. One main factor to consider is whether the request is even possible. For example, if the requesting party asks for a parking space closer to their unit but there are no common area spaces closer to the unit, the board likely does not have the power under the governing documents to displace another owner from their deeded or assigned parking spot.

A board should also consider whether there is a causal link between the disability and the request for a parking accommodation. Not every disability impacts the use of a vehicle and parking. If a person with a mental disability requests a parking accommodation, it would be reasonable to request verification to identify the link between the request and the disability.

Another consideration is cost. Typically, granting parking variances have minimal costs to the community while physical modifications can become costly. If the cost to the association is minimal and the benefit to the disabled person is significant it will be difficult to argue that the request is not reasonable.

Is the request necessary to allow equal enjoyment of the community or just convenient?

A requesting party is not entitled to an accommodation if the accommodation is merely convenient, but they are entitled to a reasonable accommodation if the accommodation is necessary to allow them the equal use and enjoyment of their home or the common area facilities.

One federal case illustrates this point well: In Sporn v. Ocean Colony Condominium Ass’n. (D NJ 2001) 173 F.Supp.2d 244, a disabled owner sought and received permission to use a parking space closer to his unit, but Sporn refused to relinquish his assigned space despite the association’s parking rules requiring such transfer. Sporn argued that he needed the space for his guests.  The Sporn court held, “an accommodation should not ‘extend a preference to handicapped residents [relative to other residents], as opposed to affording them equal opportunity'” and “accommodations that go beyond affording a handicapped tenant ‘an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling’ are not required …”(Citations omitted.) The association’s parking policy requiring the relinquishment of one’s deeded parking space granted the same rights to disabled tenants as it did to non-disabled residents. When plaintiff Sporn was asked to relinquish his parking space pursuant to the association’s parking policy, Sporn refused and when asked why he needed two spaces, Sporn did not offer any explanation related to the disability, but instead responded, “because during the summertime we couldn’t get any parking for any of our family that came down.” (Id.). This comment lead the Sporn court to determine that Sporn’s request for “reasonable accommodation” was really a request for accommodation coupled with a demand for special treatment.

Even if the board determines the requesting party is disabled and accommodation is necessary, unique concerns arise that are specific to parking accommodation requests:

Are common area disabled parking spots required by law/building code?

Not necessarily.  While disabled parking spots are common in public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, etc.), if the community is not a public accommodation subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act and was built prior to building code regulations requiring disabled parking spaces, then the association likely does not need to convert any open parking spaces to disabled parking spaces. When asked, each community should review its conditional use permit and consult with a licensed contractor or architect familiar with the applicable building code. Moreover, construction of additional disabled parking spots is often impossible because there is limited space or a limited number of common area parking spaces.

What if there are no open common area spaces to provide?

An association is only required to accommodate a reasonable request to the extent possible. If, for example, there are no spaces closer to the requesting party’s residence or there is no way to convert an existing common area space to make it more accessible, then the association should engage in the interactive process with the requesting party to determine if there is any reasonable alternative which alleviates some of the requesting party’s concerns. Every community and disability is different, so it is best to consult with legal counsel if approval of a reasonable accommodation seems impossible.

Does the association have to help pay for the accommodation?

Maybe! Some accommodation requests include physical alterations to the parking lot – painting new lines, making and installing a “reserved” sign, etc. Such alterations might sound more like a reasonable modifications rather than accommodations. Owners are often responsible for the cost to install reasonable modifications if it benefits them individually. However, the courts have treated requests for parking spaces as requests for reasonable accommodations, making associations responsible for some costs.  Providing a parking accommodation could include creating signage, repainting markings, redistributing spaces, or creating curb cuts.  This list is not exhaustive and there is no clear law on how much expense is unreasonable.

Can a disabled resident allow their non-disabled guests to park in a spot afforded to them as an accommodation?

Yes. As mentioned above, disabled persons must be afforded equal enjoyment of the community. If an association would allow any other resident to have guests park in their assigned parking spot, then the association must also extend this right to disabled persons, even if their guests are not disabled.

The resident has a disabled parking placard and claim that they can park anywhere with the placard regardless of the rules. Is this true?

No, not necessarily. While a resident with a disabled parking placard or license plate may park in all disabled parking spaces, when parking on private property they are still subject to the reasonable rules of the community. For example, they may not park in a fire lane or in a manner that blocks the ingress and egress of other residents. Another example: if there is a limit to parking in a guest spot for more than 72 hours, this rule applies to all guest spots, including disabled parking spots. The disabled parking placard or plate does not give them the right to store their vehicle in a guest parking spot. However, we strongly encourage consulting with legal counsel before towing a vehicle with a disabled parking placard or plate.

Can the association explain to other inquiring residents why someone is receiving a special parking accommodation or variance?

No. The association must keep all information relating to someone’s disability confidential.

This area of law is complicated. A board should carefully consider each reasonable accommodation request and engage in the interactive process to avoid discrimination claims, even if there is limited parking in your community. When in doubt, contact your legal counsel.