Blogging about your Condominium Neighbor and FHA violations

Revock v. Cowpet Bay West Condo Ass’n., 853 F.3d 96 (3d Cir. V.I. Mar. 31, 2017)

Many condominium association rules and regulations either prohibit unit owners from having pets or limit pets by type, size, and breed.  When a unit owner makes a federal Fair Housing Act request for reasonable accommodation that includes an emotional support animal some neighbors’ feathers can get ruffled.  So, what happens if the irritated neighbor takes to the internet and blogs about the alleged violations of the Association’s rules and regulations?

In Revock v. Cowpet Bay West Condo Ass’n., 853 F.3d 96 (3d Cir. V.I. Mar. 31, 2017), the Third Circuit recently held in part that there were issues of fact about whether defendants interfered with Plaintiffs’ fair housing rights by posting harassing messages on a blog and remanded the matter to the District Court for further proceedings.

Barbara Walters and Judith Kromenhoek each owned a unit in the Cowpet Bay West Condominium complex on Saint Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands (“Cowpet Bay West”).  The Virgin Islands are part of the Third Circuit with Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  Cowpet Bay West is governed by the Cowpet Bay West Condominium Association Board.

The dispute arose out of a series of incidents related to Walters’ and Kromenhoek’s emotional support dogs and the Association’s refusal to grant a waiver of the Association’s “no dogs” policy as a reasonable accommodation under the FHA.  Lance Talkington, another Cowpet resident, allegedly maintained an Internet blog: the Cowpet Bay Blog.  Talkington blogged about the dogs, and he and another resident Alfred Felice repeatedly complained about it for months.

Talkington wrote on his blog that “Barbara[] [Walters] has a dog and claims to have ‘papers’ that allow her to have it.” He also wrote that he had asked the office manager “whether the office has Barbara[] [Walters’] paperwork in their files and whether monetary fines have been assessed if not,” but had not received an answer. In response to this blog post, Appellee Alfred Felice posted the first of many inflammatory comments on Talkington’s blog. Felice wrote that dog owners might be “happier in another community rather than ostracized at [Cowpet], which would be another fine recourse, besides a significant $$ fine, with progressive amounts.” Id. Internal citations omitted.

Felice then wrote that someone who needed an emotional support dog “might go off his/her gourd without the pet at his/her side” in a “violent reaction. We don’t even know we need protection![] Bad Law![]”. Talkington also commented that Walters “has a pet and should be fined.” Id. Internal citations omitted.

In addition to civil rights actions filed by Walters and Kromenhoek against the Association and the Board President, claims were filed under the Fair Housing Act against the two bloggers.  Plaintiffs claimed that these individuals interfered with the exercise of their fair housing rights in violation of 13 42 U.S.C. § 3617.

Sadly, Walters committed suicide while her case was pending in the District Court. The Defendants moved for summary judgment to have the matter dismissed—arguing that her claim did not survive her death. The District Court dismissed Walters’ Fair Housing Act claims entirely due to her death. As to Kromenhoek, the District Court denied her Fair Housing Act claims on the merits.

On appeal, the Third Circuit found as to the bloggers that Felice had posted at least nine harassing messages, over a period of more than five months, from October 2011 through March 2012. They found that Talkington posted numerous harassing blog posts and comments over more than five months. The Court noted that these writings were made public on the Internet. Both Felice and Talkington continued posting even after Walters responded, on the blog, that she was “mortified, that my personal business has been laid out over the internet without my permission or forewarning.”

The Third Circuit concluded that there are genuine disputes of material fact “over the inferences that can be reasonably drawn from” Felice’s and Talkington’s blog posts. The Court stated that a reasonable jury could find that the bloggers’ harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive as to “interfere” with Walters and Kromenhoek’s fair housing rights under 42 U.S.C. § 3617. Moreover, a reasonable jury could also infer that there was a causal connection—”that Felice engaged in harassing conduct “on account of” Walters and Kromenhoek’s exercise of their fair housing rights”. Id.

Accordingly, the grant of Summary Judgment for Felice and Talkington was reversed.  The matter will return to the District Court.

Even though the claims against Felice and Talkington were not the primary focus of the Third Circuit, the Court’s decision to reverse the grant of summary judgment is significant.  Neither Felice nor Talkington were Association Board Members.  They were merely unit owners and thus Members of the Association when they wrote about Plaintiffs.  They had no power to impose fines on Plaintiffs.  They had no power to compel the Association to refuse Plaintiffs’ request for reasonable accommodations.

If the bloggers are found to have interfered with Plaintiffs’ housing rights under 42 U.S.C. §3617, it is likely this matter will return to the Third Circuit.