Hill v. Community of Damien of Molokai
911 P.2d 861 (1996)

  • Damian opened a group home in Albuquerque for people with AIDS. Four people lived at the home, and they received in-home nursing care.
  • Hill (and other neighbors) lived nearby and noticed an “increased amount of traffic.” They sued for an injunction on the basis that the group home violated a community covenant.
    • The covenant said that the lots could only be used for single-family homes and not for stores, apartments, schools, rooming houses, or other things.
  • The Trial Court found for Hill and issued an injunction. Damian appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that the group house was more akin to a health care facility than a residence, therefore they violated the covenant.
    • Hill argued that a group home does not meet the standard of a “single family home.”
    • Damian argued that a group home was a permitted use, and also that the covenant was a violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act.
  • The New Mexico Supreme Court reversed.
    • The New Mexico Supreme Court said that when they interpret covenants:
      • They must have clear and unambiguous language.
      • They will be interpreted in favor of the free enjoyment of the property.
      • Nothing can be read into the covenant by implication.
      • They must be interpreted reasonably so as not to create a illogical or unnatural construction.
      • Words must be interpreted with their original and intended meaning.
    • The Court found that the group house is more akin to a single-family home with a sick family member. Therefore the house meets the definition of a residential dwelling as required under the covenant.
    • The Court found that the word “family” in the covenant does not necessarily exclude unrelated unmarried single adults living together. Therefore the house meets the definition of a single-family home as required by the covenant.
      • There is a lot of precedent and strong policy reasons for including group homes like this in the definition of single-family residences.
      • The Court found that the residents operated as a family unit, with a stability and functionality of a traditional family.
    • The Court found that the covenant was geared towards regulating structural appearance and use, so Hill’s argument that the group home created more traffic was not relevant.
      • Nothing in the covenant appeared to be designed to reduce traffic, so you couldn’t use the idea of increased traffic to say someone was violating the covenant.
    • The Court also found, that even if you accepted Hill’s arguments and said that the group home violated the covenant, then the covenant was a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
      • The Fair Housing Act §3604(f)(1) bars discrimination on the basis of handicap.
      • The Court found that the covenant has a discriminatory intent, and is not enforceable.
        • It was clear from the evidence that Hill and the neighbors just didn’t want AIDS patients in their neighborhood.
          • They didn’t begin complaining about traffic until after a newspaper article talked about the purpose of the group home.
          • Other neighbors had obvious covenant violations that were not being prosecuted.
      • The Court found that the covenant had a disparate impact.
        • That means, that even if there was no intent, the covenant was still unenforceable because it had a discriminatory effect.
      • §3604(f)(3)(B) says that neighbors have to make “reasonable accommodations” when necessary. Therefore the covenant was unenforceable unless the group home resulted in some unreasonable burden for the community.
  • Even after the group home won the right to stay, they were continually harassed by Hill and the other neighbors. At one point, when a resident was taken to the hospital by ambulance, all the neighbors stood in their yards and toasted with champagne glasses.
    • What a bunch of jerks!