Baxter Homeowners Association, Inc. v. Angel

Baxter Homeowners Association, Inc. v. Angel, 2013 MT 83 (April 2, 2013) (5-0) (Baker, J.)

Issue: Whether Angel had standing to bring a discrimination claim on behalf of unidentified, potential clients.

Short Answer: No.

Affirmed

Facts: Geoffrey Angel, a Bozeman attorney, rented second-floor office space in the Baxter Hotel in downtown Bozeman. The first floor, mezzanine level, and second floor are rented for commercial purposes to businesses that are open to the public. The top four floors house residential condos. The building has a single elevator and a stairway that allows access to all floors. Angel also owned a residential condo in the building, and was thus a member of the Baxter Homeowners Association. The BHA’s Declarations require the elevator to be locked all times to protect the safety of occupants and their property. In 2007, BHA began receiving complaints about the elevator not being locked. In January 2008 the board voted to restrict access to the elevator to owners and tenants via swipe cards. Members of the public could access the elevator only when accompanied by someone with a swipe card. The stairwell remained unlocked during business hours.

Angel complained that the locked elevator denied access to his second-floor office to people with disabilities. Angel filed a complaint with the Human Rights Bureau in March 2008. In January 2009, the BHA board installed a time-clock system that keeps the elevator unlocked during business hours, and locked at night. Angel moved out of the Baxter in July 2008. The Human Rights Bureau investigated Angel’s complaint, and found reasonable cause to proceed. BHA moved for summary judgment, arguing Angel lacked standing. The hearing officer denied the motion, finding Angel had a specific legal interest to be protected by the Human Rights Act, but held that Angel could not recover damages for lost profits because he refused to identify anyone who had been denied access to his office. After a contested case hearing, the hearing officer concluded Angel had not been discriminated against because the time-clock was a reasonable accommodation. Angel appealed to the Human Rights Commission; BHA did not cross-appeal the denial of its summary judgment motion. The commission concluded the hearing officer had applied an incorrect legal standard. On remand, the hearing officer concluded BHA violated § 49-2-304(1)(a) by failing to provide a reasonable alteration. The officer concluded BHA’s discrimination did not cause Angel to vacate his office space, but awarded Angel $6,000 for the assessments he paid as a member of BHA to cover attorneys’ fees and expenses in defending Angel’s claim. Both parties appealed to the commission, which affirmed.

Procedural Posture & Holding: BHA and Angel sought judicial review. The district court reversed, and denied BHA’s motion for attorneys’ fees. Both parties appeal, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: The Court finds Angel’s standing as an “aggrieved party” under § 49-2-101(2) dispositive. Standing may be raised sua sponte at any stage of the proceedings. A litigant’s standing before an administrative agency depends on the statute and regulations conferring standing before the agency. An “aggrieved party” is someone with a “specific personal and legal interest. . . who has been or is likely to be specially and injuriously affected.” § 49-2-101(2), MCA. This limitation is similar to prudential limits on constitutional standing that generally limit plaintiffs to asserting their own rights and interests. Angel has alleged no specific personal interest, and has failed to show a close relationship with a person who suffered unlawful discrimination at the Baxter. He has no standing to bring this claim.