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Baxter Homeowners Association, Inc v. Geoffrey Angel

April 2, 2013

BAXTER HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION, INC., PETITIONERS, APPELLEES AND CROSS-APPELLANTS,
v.
GEOFFREY ANGEL, RESPONDENT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Eighteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Gallatin, Cause Nos. DV 11-133B and DV 11-440CX Honorable Mike Salvagni, Presiding Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Beth Baker

April 2 2013

Submitted on Briefs: February 27, 2013

Filed:

Clerk

Justice Beth Baker delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 This matter comes before the Court on cross-appeals of the Eighteenth Judicial District Court's orders reversing the Human Rights Commission's finding of discrimination and award of $6,000 damages to Geoffrey Angel and denying both parties' requests for attorneys' fees. We affirm the District Court's orders. The dispositive issue on appeal is whether Angel possessed proper standing to file a complaint of discrimination on behalf of his unidentified and potential clients. We hold that he did not.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶2 Geoffrey Angel, a Bozeman, Montana, attorney, rented second-floor office space in the Baxter Hotel in downtown Bozeman. The first floor, the mezzanine level, and the second floor of the former hotel are rented for commercial purposes to businesses open to the public. The top four floors house residential condominium units. The building contains a single elevator and a stairway that permit access to all floors. Angel also owned one of the upper-floor residential units and, as such, was a member of the Baxter Homeowners Association (BHA). The BHA's Declarations, as amended in 1997, require that the elevator be locked at all times "in order to secure the safety of the occupants and their possessions."

¶3 In 2007, the BHA board of directors began receiving complaints about the hotel's elevator not being locked as required by the Declarations. In response to the complaints, the board voted in January 2008 to restrict access to the elevator by only permitting unit owners and their tenants to access the elevator via swipe key cards. Members of the public could access the elevator only when accompanied by someone in possession of a swipe key card. The stairwell remained unlocked during business hours.

¶4 Angel complained to the Baxter's property manager that locking the elevator was inappropriate because it denied persons with disabilities access to his second-floor law office. Angel's complaint was brought to the board's attention and the board directed its attorney to look into whether locking the elevator was discriminatory. Angel filed a complaint with the Montana Human Rights Bureau on March 24, 2008. At its April 2008 meeting, the board discussed options for resolving the elevator dispute and began to explore alternatives. The issue was discussed during each of the board's monthly meetings for the next several months until, in the fall of 2008, the board voted to install a time clock system that would keep the elevator unlocked during business hours and locked at night. The installation was completed in January 2009; since then, the elevator has remained unlocked during normal business hours. Angel moved his law office out of the building in July 2008, relocating to a home he owned in Bozeman where he would not have to pay rent. That home did not have a handicapped-accessible entrance.

¶5 In the meantime, Angel's public accommodations discrimination complaint was investigated by the Montana Human Rights Bureau, which found reasonable cause to proceed with the complaint. BHA filed a motion for summary judgment in the administrative proceedings on the ground that Angel lacked standing to bring the complaint. As summarized by the Hearing Officer, BHA claimed that Angel: cannot show that he is associated with disabled persons, is not an affected person within the meaning of the Montana Human Rights Statute, cannot prove that he has any damages, cannot prove that he moved out of the Baxter Hotel because the elevator was locked and allegedly denying disabled clients access to his office, and cannot seek any affirmative relief because that relief has already been completed.

¶6 The Hearing Officer issued an order on April 6, 2009, denying BHA's motion for summary judgment, but foreclosing Angel's ability to recover damages for lost profits, should he prevail on his claim, because he had failed or refused to identify any client or prospective client who had been denied access to his office because of the locked elevator. The Hearing Officer concluded summarily that because Angel is a licensed attorney who intends to practice discrimination law, "and because he was a tenant at the Baxter Hotel and could engage in discrimination law practice, he can fairly state within the confines of his complaint that he had a specific legal interest to be protected by the Human Rights Act."

ΒΆ7 The matter proceeded to a contested case hearing in April 2009, following which the Hearing Officer concluded that Angel had not been discriminated against because installation of the automated time clock was a reasonable accommodation for disabled persons and the delay in implementation of ...


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