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Novak v. Pearlstein

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

September 15, 2014

MICHAEL NOVAK, CHRISTINA NOVAK, and their daughter, T.N., Plaintiffs,


EDMOND E. CHANG, District Judge.

Pro se Plaintiffs Michael Novak, Christina Novak, and their daughter T.N. allege violations of the Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq., and raise related state-law emotional distress claims.[1] The Novaks bring this suit against their condominium association, along with its property management company, building manager, and the law firm representing it. Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) or, alternatively, to stay the action pending the outcome of state-court and administrative proceedings involving the parties. For the reasons explained below, Defendants' motions are granted in part and denied in part.

I. Background

For purposes of evaluating the motions to dismiss, the Court accepts the Complaint's factual allegations as true and draws reasonable inferences in the Novaks' favor. Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, ___ U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 2079 (2011).

A. The Novaks' 2007 IDHR Complaint and Disputes over Service Dog

Michael and Christina Novak are the co-owners of an apartment located on North State Parkway in Chicago, where they live with their minor child, T.N. R. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 4-5, 7. Both Michael and Christina have "profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss" and, because of their deafness, employ a service dog, Hera. Id. ¶ 6.

For a number of years, the Novaks have had a contentious relationship (to say the least) with Defendant State Parkway Condominium Association, the corporate entity that administers the high-rise building in which the Novaks' apartment is located.[2] Compl. ¶ 11. In January 2007, the Novaks filed a FHA complaint with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), alleging that the Association unreasonably refused to provide a real-time transcript technology service, known as Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), at the Association's board meetings. Compl. ¶¶ 13, 19; R. 44-1, HUD Housing Discrimination Compl. Following a conciliation session held by the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) (after HUD apparently referred the matter to the IDHR), the Association agreed in September 2007 to provide the Novaks with a $10, 000 payment and CART services at three board meetings each year. Compl. ¶ 14; R. 44-2, Settlement Agreement.

But that settlement did not end the disputes. According to the Novaks, that same month (September 2007), Lieberman Management Services, Inc. (LMS), the building's property management company, and Donna Weber, the newly arrived LMS-employed building manager, Compl. ¶¶ 9-10, accused the Novaks of several violations of the Association's rules, including a rule barring animals in the main lobby and in the passenger elevator, id. ¶¶ 15-16. The Novaks allege that they brought Hera into those areas pursuant to an exception to the no-animals rule, which allowed animals in those areas when the service elevator was not available. Id. ¶ 16. After LMS sent them a warning letter on September 11, 2007, the Novaks requested a hearing under the Association's rules. Id. ¶¶ 18-19. Following a series of conversations in which Weber apparently apologized for not understanding the rules, the Novaks believed that the warning had been withdrawn. Id. ¶ 20. But then they received a letter from the Association's law firm, Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC (for convenience's sake, referred to as Levenfeld from now on), stating that the Association would not hold a hearing because the Association was not going to levy a fine; the letter went on to direct the Novaks to follow the directions set forth in the warning letter. Id. ¶ 22.

The dispute resurfaced in late October 2007, when Weber-purportedly acting "on behalf of" Levenfeld-"harassed" Michael Novak with questions about Hera. Id ¶ 25. In response, Novak informed the law firm that effective immediately the service dog would accompany the family in all common areas, including the lobby.[3] Id. On October 29, 2007, Novak met with Weber, three members of the Association's board, and Levenfeld lawyers at the law firm's office. Id. ¶ 27. Novak believed that those in attendance addressed him in a "threatening tone" as he presented a list of requests, including recognition of the Novaks' right to bring Hera into common areas and production of certain financial records about Association dealings that Novak had previously challenged. Id. On October 30, 2007, Levenfeld informed the Novaks by letter that the request concerning the service dog was denied, some financial statements would be provided, and that Michael Novak must stay out of Weber's office. Id. ¶ 28. In response, the Novaks' then-attorney informed Levenfeld that the Association's stance appeared to be unlawful retaliation for the recently settled IDHR case and failure to provide a reasonable accommodation as required by the settlement agreement. Id. ¶ 29.

B. The Association's State-Court Action against Michael Novak

Several months later, in March 2008, the Association sued Michael Novak in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging that Novak had harassed Weber with excessive emails, telephone calls, and correspondence about Association documents and his accommodation demands.[4] Id. ¶ 30. This state-court complaint was later amended in November 2009 to include allegations that Novak harassed Association Board members, disrupted board meetings, and violated Association rules, and to seek injunctive relief including the forced sale of the Novaks' condo. Id. ¶ 34. Novak filed counterclaims, apparently unrelated to any housing discrimination claims, against the Association for its alleged failure to produce financial records.[5] R. 58, Pls.' Br. in Opp'n to Association Mot. (Pls.' Ass'n Br.) at 6. On April 26, 2010, the parties agreed to, and the Circuit Court entered, an interim order enjoining the Novaks from taking their service dog into common areas and entering Weber's office, and limiting communication between the Novaks and the Association and LMS. Compl. ¶ 36; Agreed Order, No. 08 CH 11941. That order was vacated in May 2011, when the Association voluntarily dismissed its claims before a scheduled trial in state court.[6] Compl. ¶ 38.

C. The Novaks' 2010 IDHR Complaint

Meanwhile, in October 2010, the Novaks filed a new housing discrimination complaint with HUD, which referred the matter to the IDHR. Id. ¶ 37; Pls.' Ass'n Br. at 7 n. 8. The complaint evidently alleged that the Association had violated federal and state fair housing laws by (1) attempting to terminate the Novaks' ownership of their condo through the state court action; (2) issuing a noise violation against the Novaks in January 2010; (3) refusing to provide CART services at a hearing requested to contest that violation; and (4) refusing to recognize their use of a service dog, in retaliation for the Novaks' 2007 complaint.[7] R. 44-4, IDHR Compl. at 2.

On June 30, 2011, the IDHR issued a "Determination of Lack of Substantial Evidence" to support the Novaks' complaint. R. 44-5, IDHR Determination. The IDHR found that any claims of discrimination from the Association's lawsuit or the noise violation (and related hearing) were moot because the lawsuit was dismissed and the asserted violation had been withdrawn. Id. at 3-4. On the other claims, the agency found that the alleged adverse actions, taking place in 2009 and 2010, had not occurred "within such a time period as to raise an inference of retaliatory motivation, " because the settlement agreement in the first IDHR case had been concluded a few years earlier, in September 2007. Id.

The Novaks requested a review by the Illinois Human Rights Commission, but the Commission sustained (that is, affirmed) the IDHR's dismissal of the complaint by a voice vote on October 23, 2013. R. 69-1, Comm'n Meeting of Panel A Minutes at III(A). The Commission has yet to issue a final written order that formally affirms the dismissal.

D. Fines and Accusations of Rules Violations

There is one more set of allegedly discriminatory conduct. The Novaks assert that, between the filing of their first HUD complaint in January 2007 and January 2013, they were falsely accused of violating various Association rules, and in each instance denied a right to a hearing. Compl. ¶ 39. They also received seven fines between December 2006 and July 2008, totaling $2, 455, and afterwards a lien was placed on the Novaks' condo. Id. ¶¶ 39-40. For three of these fines, the Novaks allegedly received no notice, and for all seven instances, the Novaks allegedly had no opportunity to be heard. Id. ¶ 40.

E. This Lawsuit

Proceeding pro se, the Novaks commenced this federal-court action in December 2013, naming as defendants the Association, LMS, and Weber (collectively, the Association Defendants), as well as their law firm, Levenfeld Pearlstein. Compl. The Complaint's twelve counts allege that each of the Defendants discriminated against the Novaks by refusing to accommodate their disability, attempting to force the sale of their home in retaliation, and coercing and threatening them. Id. ¶¶ 51-130. The Association Defendants and Levenfeld have both moved to dismiss or to stay the action, arguing ...

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