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Bronk v. Ineichen

May 11, 1995

ALISHA BRONK AND MONICA JAY,

PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,

v.

BERNHARD INEICHEN,

DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.

No. 93 C 444--Barbara B. Crabb, Chief Judge.

Before FAIRCHILD, CUMMINGS and CUDAHY, Circuit Judges.

CUMMINGS, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED FEBRUARY 9, 1995

DECIDED MAY 11, 1995

After a brief but contentious tenancy, plaintiffs Alisha Bronk and Monica Jay vacated their Madison, Wisconsin, apartment and brought suit against their former landlord, Bernhard Ineichen. Plaintiffs, two profoundly deaf women, alleged that defendant Ineichen had discriminated against them in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. sec. 3601 et seq., as amended by the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 ("FHAA"); *fn1 Wisconsin state discrimination law, Sec. 101.22 Wis. Stat. Ann.; *fn2 and the Madison housing discrimination ordinance, Sec. 3.23(4), *fn3 by refusing to allow them to keep a dog in their rented townhouse. A jury found otherwise, returning a special verdict of no liability against Ineichen. Plaintiffs subsequently moved for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial, and now challenge on appeal the district judge's denial of these motions and certain of her evidentiary rulings. While the record demonstrates ample evidence to support the determination of no liability, we are concerned that the tendered jury instructions may have confused jury members by unnecessarily conflating local, state, and federal law. We therefore reverse and remand for a new trial.

FACTS

Plaintiffs' history of conflict with the defendant dates back to the day they signed the townhouse lease in the summer of 1992. Frequent and varied disputes soon ensued, but the sorest of all subjects was a dog named Pierre. Bronk asked Ineichen when she signed the lease whether he would permit her and Jay to have a "hearing" dog, *fn4 but Ineichen refused to modify his no-pets policy. Shortly after plaintiffs took possession of the townhouse, Bronk's brother Keith arrived for a visit with Pierre and another dog, Debbie. Pierre, whom Keith allegedly had trained as a hearing dog, was to remain with plaintiffs. On discovering Pierre in the townhouse, Ineichen put his foot down; he quickly evicted Pierre, who went to Bronk's parents' home in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Over the next few months, plaintiffs argued Pierre's case with Ineichen. There is some dispute as to how much of the dialogue Ineichen, a Swiss immigrant, actually comprehended (according to his testimony, not much), but the conversations involved repeated attempts to explain the distinction between mere house pets and hearing dogs. Bronk testified, for example, that she offered to show Ineichen a certificate proving Pierre's abilities but that Ineichen showed no interest. For his part, Ineichen threatened in writing to raise plaintiffs' rent and charge them an additional security deposit if they brought Pierre back to the townhouse, accused them of making trouble, and hinted that he would prefer them to find new living arrangements.

In November 1992, Bronk and Jay filed a complaint with the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission ("MEEOC") alleging that Ineichen had discriminated against them on the basis of both their gender and their disability. After a cursory investigation the MEEOC found probable cause to believe that Ineichen had discriminated against Bronk and Jay based on their disability (but no probable cause to support the sex discrimination claim) and sought to enjoin Ineichen from enforcing his no-pets policy against them. Ineichen reluctantly conceded and did not resist the injunction, which subsequently was issued on December 23, 1992. Relations between landlord and tenants never recovered, however, and in March 1993, after both women lost their jobs in Madison, Bronk and Jay relocated to Kenosha. Thereafter they brought the instant suit for damages in federal court.

At trial, defense counsel for Ineichen conceded his client's sour disposition as well as his unyielding refusal to allow Pierre in the townhouse. Nevertheless, he argued, Ineichen's obduracy did not violate plaintiffs' rights or any of the applicable statutes for the simple reasons that Pierre was not a hearing dog and plaintiffs did not have a legitimate need for him. The defense tendered evidence that Pierre had received no training beyond that purportedly provided by Keith Bronk, an amateur with no demonstrated experience in training hearing dogs; that contrary to Bronk's deposition testimony, no facility had ever certified Pierre as a hearing dog; and that the various affidavits produced by plaintiffs which set forth Pierre's assistive functions were contradictory as to what he could actually do. Maria Merrill, the women's former roommate, testified that in a brief encounter with Pierre before he was shipped off to Kenosha she did not see any evidence he was trained. An expert witness for the defense testified that intensive, professional schooling and isolation from other animals (both of which Pierre concededly lacked) were prerequisites for a hearing dog. The defense also attempted to undermine plaintiffs' claim that they needed Pierre's assistance and suffered without it. Under cross examination, plaintiffs acknowledged that they had lived together on several previous occasions in other apartments, and had never before demanded or had access to a hearing dog.

At the close of the evidence, the district judge instructed the jury regarding the claims against Ineichen. Although the plaintiffs had asserted violations of state and municipal equal protection ordinances as well as federal law, the jury did not render separate verdicts on each claim. Instead, they received a two-question special verdict form on liability that asked only whether Ineichen had discriminated against plaintiffs by failing to reasonably accommodate their disability. After deliberation, the jury returned with an answer of "no" as to both plaintiffs.

ANALYSIS

Plaintiffs raise several challenges to both the trial procedures and its result. Initially they contend that Ineichen's absolute refusal to allow Pierre in the townhouse required the district judge to issue judgment in their favor on the federal claim despite the adverse jury verdict. Acknowledging that judgment as a matter of law is appropriate "only when there can be but one conclusion from the evidence" and inferences reasonably drawn therefrom, McNabola v. Chicago Transit Authority, 10 F.3d 501, 515 (7th Cir. 1993), plaintiffs contend that evidence supported the sole conclusion that ...


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