Most of you know Habitat for Humanity as a charitable organization that builds houses for the economically disadvantaged. Its most famous volunteer is former American President Jimmy Carter. Central to the Habitat program is the concept of sweat equity, where the home recipient puts in a mandated number of hours of labor alongside the volunteers. Habitat is dependent upon private donations of materials, funds and volunteer labor. I was pro bono counsel for a Habitat chapter for 22 years, during which time we built 30 houses. I handled real estate purchases and sales, zoning applications, subdivision approvals and general corporate representation for that affiliate.
It therefore pained me to see a lawsuit filed against the national Habitat organization as well as the local affiliate by a prospective buyer for handicap discrimination in Federal court. According to the complaint filed with the court, the plaintiffs claim that Habitat discriminated against them because Habitat was unwilling to change its construction guidelines to provide the plaintiffs with a handicap accessible home. I find this offensive that Federal discrimination law might force a private organization to rewrite its program and guidelines which are legitimate and which have been in effect for over 30 years.
The plaintiffs also sought a waiver from the sweat equity requirement because of their disability. Also the plaintiffs sought to force Habitat to change its guidelines to allow a household size of two rather than the three person household currently required. Rather than using the court system to bully a charitable organization to change its rules specially for them, the plaintiffs should find some other housing alternative.
The plaintiffs also claim discrimination because the type on the Habitat documents is allegedly too small for them to read (although magnifying glasses are readily available).
The kicker is that the plaintiffs are seeking punitive damages against Habitat. In other words, the plaintiffs are asking the court to punish Habitat by awarding a huge amount of money to them from Habitat, something that could render the organization insolvent. All in all, this is simply a perversion of the legal system.
This is the kind of case that could cause people to refrain from volunteering, and businesses from refraining to give donations, in the fear that the Habitat chapter might become insolvent. Thus, the other home recipients who are willing to play by the rules are penalized and would not receive new homes. It is entirely unclear to me how Federal law in this case would justify rewriting the guidelines of this private charitable organization. Hopefully this case will be dismissed sooner rather than later.