Court: Fair Housing Law Doesn't Apply to Roommate Selection
There’s an update to a case we reported in the November 2011 issue of Fair Housing Coach: A federal appeals court has dismissed a fair housing case filed against an online roommate-matching service, Roommates.com, ruling that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) does not apply to shared living arrangements.
The case made headlines in April 2008, as one of only a few rulings about the liability of online service providers for postings on their Web sites. In general, federal law limits the liability of an “interactive computer service” for content originating with a third party of the service.
This case involved a roommate-matching service, which was accused of violating fair housing law for its part in allowing users to post preferences about gender, sexual orientation, and children of potential roommates. Allegedly, the service assembled the answers in a profile page, which included the unlawful preferences.
Before tackling the fair housing issue, the court issued a ruling in 2008 on whether federal law provided blanket immunity to the online service provider for postings by its users. After reviewing the law and how the service operated, the court ruled that the online service could be liable under fair housing law for some of the content on its Web site.
The case was sent back to a lower court, which ruled that the roommate-matching service violated fair housing law for prompting of discriminatory preferences against users, matching users based on that information, and publishing these preferences. The court ordered the service to pay nearly $500,000 in attorney’s fees. The service appealed.
In a ruling issued in February 2012, the federal appeals court reversed, ruling that the service was not liable because federal fair housing law does not apply to the selection of roommates. The court reasoned that the FHA was intended to address the problem of landlords discriminating in the sale and rental of housing—not to interfere with personal relationships of people sharing the same living space inside the home.
The court ruled that the First Amendment protected a roommate’s right of intimate association—that is, to carry on certain intimate or private relationships. “Holding that the FHA applies inside a home or apartment would allow the government to restrict our ability to choose roommates compatible with our lifestyles. This would be a serious invasion of privacy, autonomy, and security.”
Since the FHA doesn’t apply to the sharing of living spaces, the court ruled that it’s not unlawful for individuals to discriminate in selecting a roommate. Consequently, the online service did not violate fair housing law by facilitating discriminatory roommate searches [Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommate.com, LLC., California, Feb. 2, 2012].