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Town of Irmo ‘willfully’ violated disabled woman’s rights, federal lawsuit says

A handicapped Irmo resident twice asked town officials for permission to cover a ramp in front of her home that she said would help prevent her from falling, but town officials refused, according to a federal lawsuit.

The first time she was denied a variance because the law did not allow for one for “medical necessity.” The second time, after a plea in front of town council, no action was taken.

Now the town faces a federal lawsuit that alleges it violated the woman’s rights under the federal Fair Housing Act. The act, which was made law in 1988, amended the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to extend protections to people with disabilities and to families with children.

The lawsuit was filed federal court in Columbia on Nov. 16, the same day the town had to respond to a 20-page letter from the federal Department of Justice.

The woman, who asked her name not be used because she fears for her safety, has limited mobility. She underwent four hip surgeries in one year, the lawsuit says. She uses a cane and a walker. Because of her surgeries, she has trouble walking, climbing stairs, getting in and out of vehicles, stepping over objects and walking on wet surfaces, according to the lawsuit.

In the fall of 2016, she fell four times on her concrete driveway. She hired a contractor to assess the property and the contractor recommended she install a 24-foot carport that would extend in front of her property. The carport would protect from rain and snow part of her driveway, as well as a ramp she had built to enter her home.

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She applied for a zoning permit in November 2016, but it was denied because the carport would violate an ordinance that disallows structures extending out in front of properties in Irmo.

After being denied the permit, the woman applied for a variance from the town’s zoning board. She and her contractor, who assessed the need for the carport, both spoke at the zoning board meeting on Dec. 12, 2016. Both asked for exceptions to the ordinance because of the woman’s disability.

One board member responded in the meeting by telling her variances must be “based on uniqueness ... of the property and not the property owner,” the lawsuit says. Town Administrator Robert Brown said the ordinance did not have built-in room to exempt people with prohibitive medical conditions.

The board voted three to one to deny the variance application. The woman filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development on January 10, 2017. In it, she alleged the town violated the Fair Housing Act by “discriminating against her because of disability,” the federal lawsuit says.

HUD subsequently investigated the case and passed the case up to the Attorney General.

Even after filing a complaint with HUD, the woman stood in front of the town council, which is notoriously divided and led by an outspoken mayor. At a Feb. 7, 2017, council meeting, the woman pleaded with the council to approve her variance. She showed council pictures of her injuries from when she fell on her driveway and asserted she had a right to a variance because of her disability, the lawsuit says.

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While speaking to council, the woman said there were two neighboring homes to hers that had carports that extended in front of the properties. The council took no action at the meeting, but that same night, Brown, the town administrator, instructed code enforcement officers via email to cite the carports the woman had mentioned, according to the lawsuit. The next day, those properties received notices.

The lawsuit alleges the town violated the Fair Housing Act because it:

Discriminated against the woman because of her disability;

Refused to permit her “at her own expense, to make reasonable modifications to existing premises”;

Refused to make accommodations to allow her equal enjoyment and use of her home.

The town’s conduct was “intentional, willful and taken in disregard” for the woman’s rights, the lawsuit says, and she should be awarded monetary damages because of the town’s actions.

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Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.

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