Kenneth and Patricia Woodward are residents of the City of Paris, Tennessee. Mrs. Woodward has Multiple Sclerosis and utilizes a motorized chair. The Woodwards petitioned the City of Paris ("City") for permission to construct a carport on the side of their house so that Mrs. Woodward would be protected from rain when getting in and out of her van. The Woodwards alleged that the City building inspector told them the carport would be permitted if it had at least a one foot setback from their property line, and on that basis the Woodwards began construction. However, the City zoning ordinances required a fifteen foot side yard. Subsequently, the Woodwards petitioned the City for a zoning variance in order to continue construction, but the City denied the request.
The Woodwards did not challenge the face (i.e., the language) of the ordinance as discriminatory; rather they argued the City applied the ordinance unfairly, intentionally discriminating against them on the basis of disability. However, the City argued that it denied the variance not because of Mrs. Woodward's disability, but because the carport would violate the City's zoning requirements, and the decision would have been the same for any lot of similar shape and size in the residential area.
Further, the Court stated, "Allowing Plaintiffs to build a carport in violation of the zoning requirements would be at odds with the fundamental nature of the zoning scheme, and therefore, unreasonable."
The Court dismissed the suit, finding that the Woodwards did not show sufficient evidence that the City denied the variance based solely on Mrs. Woodward's disability.
The Court's opinion gave very little attention to the discussion of reasonable modifications. The ADA requires that public entities make reasonable modifications in order to provide qualified individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive benefits from or to participate in programs run by such entities. A modification is considered reasonable, in part, if it does not fundamentally alter the nature of the public entity's service or program. Though this Court stated that the requested variance would be unreasonable, it provided no analysis or explanation how it reached this conclusion.
Furthermore, referring to a Seventh Circuit decision — Good Shepherd Manor Foundation, Inc. v. City of Momence — the Court indicated that the ADA's reasonable modification requirement only applies "to rules and policies that harm the disabled 'by reason of their handicap'." Arguably, denying Mrs. Woodward a variance to construct a carport had a harmful impact upon her that others in the neighborhood without physical impairments would not experience. This case may have had a different outcome if the Woodwards had presented evidence to support the carport as a reasonable modification, and to show the unique impact of the City's variance denial upon Mrs. Woodward by reason of her disability.
In Trovato v. City of Manchester (New Hampshire), for example, a federal district court determined that the City failed to reasonably accommodate a mother and daughter with disabilities (the "Trovatos") with a variance to a zoning ordinance, so as to permit their building an accessible parking space in front of their home. The Trovatos demonstrated that given their disabilities, they would derive great benefit from the accessible parking space, and lack thereof would adversely affect their use and enjoyment of their home. The City failed to show how the parking space would disrupt the character of the neighborhood or fundamentally alter the purposes of the zoning ordinance, and thus denial of the accommodation amounted to discrimination under the ADA.
1 Though not noted in the Court's opinion, persons with physical impairments commonly require more time to get in and out of motor vehicles than persons without physical impairments.