A federal appeals court said a lower court judge was correct in ruling against the wife of prominent Chicago area bankruptcy lawyer Peter Francis Geraci in her dispute with her condominium building over elevator access, saying a judge and jury didn’t break any rules in allowing the condo association to contest her claims to being disabled.
On May 25, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of the Union Square Condominium Association in a part of its long-running legal feud with Holly Geraci and her husband.
“We have not found a case where a plaintiff can unequivocally assert a condition under a (Fair Housing Act) claim, allowing the defense only to argue that this condition is not an impairment,” the judges wrote. “Geraci must prove she is handicapped and thus, Union Square has the right to disprove that very fact.”
Holly Geraci sued the association in 2014, saying the FHA should ensure her private elevator access because of post-traumatic stress disorder she said was triggered by a 2013 encounter with a neighbor’s dog in the elevator. She also claimed the association retaliated against her for requesting the accommodation. A jury ruled against her in April 2017.
Jeffrey Ogden Katz
The Geracis and the association began quarreling over dogs in the buildings’ elevators in 2004, when the couple first asked the association to ban large dogs from the elevators. She said her fear of large dogs in enclosed spaces dates back to her childhood, when she was purportedly attacked by a German shepherd that jumped into her father’s car. She ultimately requested a lock-out key, similar to that used by movers or emergency responders, allowing her to ride the elevator to the ground without stopping at other floors, and potentially having to share the elevator with large dogs. The association’s denial preceded her lawsuit.
In appealing the 2017 decision, Geraci alleged improper jury instructions and said Union Square shouldn’t have been allowed to present expert witness testimony about whether her handicap qualified under FHA rules. Judges William Bauer, Frank Easterbook and Ilana Rovner heard arguments Feb. 22 and issued an opinion May 25 on Geraci’s appeal from the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly.
According to Bauer’s opinion, Union Square’s psychiatrist testified to Geraci’s three separate mental conditions, none of which were the PTSD her treating psychologist diagnosed. She said Kennelly shouldn’t have allowed the association to question if she had a mental impairment. During deliberations, the jury sent a note asking: “If all of us jurors agreed she did not have a handicap per FHA criteria, do we need to go through all items on the first and second claims to establish verdict?” Kennelly merely referred jurors back to the original instructions.
In affirming Kennelly’s position on jury instructions, the panel said its basis was not that he gave proper instructions, “but rather that there was no triable issue for Geraci’s retaliation claim” because there was no evidence the association’s conduct would “coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with” a person of reasonable fortitude.
The retaliation claim was based on an open forum conducted by the Union Square association, as well as litigation updates sent to the property’s co-owners. Geraci said the association revealed her PTSD to her neighbors, causing emotional distress and embarrassment. However, the panel wrote, it was her lawsuit that made the PTSD diagnosis public, and her own counsel said nothing revealed at the forum or through the updates “veered beyond factual representation of the public record (and) no federal law prevents co-owners of a condominium association from knowing why their association is bearing legal costs.”
The panel also rejected Geraci’s argument about the expert witness, saying the plaintiff has the burden of proving a handicap that qualifies for FHA protection, while a defendant has a right to disprove such an assertion.
Finding Kennelly did not abuse any judicial discretion, the panel affirmed his decision.
Geraci was represented by attorney Jeffrey Ogden Katz and other attorneys with The Patterson Law Firm, of Chicago.
The Union Square Association attorney is Graham P. Miller, of the Chicago firm of Borkan & Scahill.