Legal Update: Recent Court Rulings on Fair Housing Law
There’s often a lot of attention on avoiding fair housing trouble during the leasing process, but those concerns don’t end once the lease is signed. Fair housing law protects not only prospects and applicants who are denied housing, but also current and former residents who claim unfair treatment because of their race, ethnicity, or other protected class.
And, each year, there are a substantial number of complaints alleging denial of reasonable accommodation requests by or on behalf of residents with disabilities. Fair housing law prohibits housing discrimination based on disability—and one form of disability discrimination is refusal to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities.
In this lesson, we’ve compiled recent fair housing cases filed against communities by their residents. In each case, we review the events leading up to the dispute and how it landed in court. Then, we explain the rulings and the reasoning behind the courts’ decisions. Finally, you can take the Coach’s Quiz to see how much you’ve learned.
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. Under the FHA, it’s unlawful to discriminate against anyone —or to impose different terms, conditions, or privileges of residency—based on any of these protected characteristics.
In addition, the FHA makes it unlawful to refuse to make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, practices, or services when necessary to allow an individual with a disability to use and enjoy use of the home. Nevertheless, requests for reasonable accommodations may be denied if providing the accommodation is not reasonable—that is, it would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the community or would fundamentally alter the nature of the community’s operations.
Editor’s Note: In addition to outlawing discriminatory rental practices, the FHA bans retaliation by making it unlawful to “coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with” anyone who has exercised his rights under fair housing law—as well as anyone who has helped or encouraged someone to do so.
Was Resident Subjected to Racially Hostile Housing Environment?
In July 2015, a federal appeals court ruled against a resident who claimed that she was subjected to a hostile housing environment because of her race.
What Happened: The resident was an African-American woman who rented a unit at a Kansas condominium community. The community was governed by a homeowners association (HOA).
While living there, the resident had a number of disputes with neighbors about noise coming from her unit. One of the neighbors, who lived directly below her, sued the resident because of the noise. Because the resident didn’t answer the charges, the court issued a default judgment against her, which stated that the resident regularly and intentionally engaged in or permitted offensive or unlawful activities with substantial certainty that such activities would interfere with her neighbor’s use and enjoyment of her property.
The HOA had no involvement in the lawsuit. Though its representatives tried to mediate noise disputes between the resident and her neighbors, the HOA didn’t fine or reprimand her because of the noise.
The resident sued the HOA, accusing the community of creating a racially hostile housing environment based on a handful of incidents, including its three-month delay in putting her name on the mailbox and adding her name to the building’s outside marquee. In addition, she complained that her nameplate was ripped off the mailbox, the decal on her car was stolen, and the neighbor’s noise complaints against her were all racially motivated.
Ruling against the resident, the court dismissed the case, ruling that she didn’t have enough evidence to show that the community discriminated against her based on her race. The resident appealed.
Reasoning: The resident failed to prove that the community created a hostile housing environment because of her race.
To prove claims based on hostile housing environment, the resident needed evidence that:
- She was a member of a protected class;
- She was subjected to unwelcome harassment;
- The harassment was because she was a member of protected class; and
- The harassment was so severe, pervasive, or abusive that it altered the conditions of her housing by unreasonably interfering with her use and enjoyment of the premises.
As an African American, the resident was a member of a protected group, but she didn't prove that she suffered harassment because of her race. There were no allegations that anyone from the HOA used racial slurs against her or that any of the incidents were related to her race. She claimed that an unidentified HOA board member accused her of playing “loud black music,” but there was no evidence that either the HOA or the neighbors were concerned about the type of music she played, but rather the volume and time of day she played it.
Furthermore, the resident failed to prove that the community’s conduct was so severe that it unreasonably interfered with her use and enjoyment of the premises. She pointed to several incidents, but they didn’t rise to the level of unlawful harassment. There may have been delays in getting her name on the mailbox or outside marquee, but she didn’t show that the HOA’s delay was any longer for her than other residents, that it was unreasonable, or that her lease with the unit owner required the HOA to put her name in these locations. The noise complaints didn’t amount to harassment—according to the default judgment against her, it was the resident who unreasonably interfered with her neighbor’s use and enjoyment of her home.
She also claimed that removal of her name from the mailbox and stolen decal from her car showed harassment, but she didn’t identify when, how, or why these incidents occurred. Even if they were racially motivated, she failed to show the HOA was responsible for them. Moreover, these isolated and relatively minor incidents over months weren’t enough to prove a hostile housing environment.
- Jackson v. Park Place Condominiums Association, July 2015
Editor's Note: Trivial or isolated incidents aren’t enough to show harassment—it has to be severe and pervasive. To determine whether an environment was illegally hostile or abusive, courts look at all the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminating conduct; its severity; whether it was physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere utterance; and whether it unreasonably interfered with use and enjoyment of the home.
Resident Accuses Landlord of Sexual Harassment,
But Admits to Consensual Sexual Relationship
In July 2015, a court ruled that the owner of rental property in Illinois had to pay attorney’s fees, but not damages, in a fair housing case for sexual harassment.
What Happened: The resident lived in a unit owned by the landlord. The parties signed two one-year leases, but near the end of her second lease, the resident alleged, the landlord proposed sex in exchange for rent. When she refused, she said he initiated eviction proceedings as retaliation against her.
The resident sued, claiming that the landlord’s sexual advances and allegedly inappropriate comments violated federal fair housing law. At her request, the court ordered a temporary halt to the eviction proceedings. At a hearing, the landlord agreed to withdraw his eviction complaint—he didn’t follow through, but the eviction case was dismissed anyway.
The landlord also failed to defend himself in the fair housing case, so the court issued a default judgment against him. That meant that he was deemed to have admitted all the allegations against him.
The court conducted a hearing to determine damages. Both parties testified that they engaged in sexual activities starting on the day the resident signed the first lease and continuing “off and on” for a period of time. There was conflicting testimony, however, between them about the nature of their relationship. For example, the resident said she felt “taken advantage of,” but the landlord said it was the resident who initiated and continued the sexual relationship. She said she felt pressured to first engage in sexual relations, but he said she approached him.
The resident also testified that the landlord retaliated against her when she rejected his proposal to trade sex for rent by raising her rent. Because she didn’t agree to the rent increase, she didn’t sign the new lease, and the landlord filed the eviction proceedings against her.
The resident asked the court to award her damages and attorney’s fees for her sexual harassment and retaliation claims.
Decision: The resident wasn’t entitled to damages, but she was entitled to attorney’s fees on her fair housing claims.
Reasoning: The landlord was liable for violating fair housing law because of the default judgment against him, but the resident still had to prove whether she was entitled to damages. To recover damages for emotional distress, embarrassment, and mental anguish, she had to prove that it was caused by the landlord’s actions. She failed to meet that burden.
The evidence by both parties illustrated a typical “he-said…she-said” situation about their sexual relationship and landlord/tenant relationship. Because of the conflicting testimony, it was up to the court to decide whom to believe.
In her complaint, the resident alleged that she had successfully fought off sexual demands by the landlord and that he proposed sex in lieu of rent. At the hearing, however, she testified repeatedly and in great detail that the parties had a continuing sexual relationship “off and on” for a year, starting on the day she signed the first lease. Her testimony was vastly inconsistent with the allegations in her complaint, so it raised questions about the truthfulness of her claims and testimony. Aside from her conflicting testimony, there wasn’t any other proof to substantiate her claims of severe emotional distress.
For the same reasons, she wasn’t entitled to damages for retaliation. She failed to show that her interactions with the landlord about the lease and eviction caused her damages. In fact, the only time she sought legal counsel or physical protection was after eviction proceedings began. And she still lived there, after entering a third lease with the landlord immediately after the damages hearing.
Nevertheless, the resident was entitled to attorney’s fees. Under the FHA, the court has the discretion to award the “prevailing party” reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. As the prevailing party in this case, the resident was entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees in an amount to be determined later.
- Lofton v. Hinton, July 2015
Editor’s Note: Be prepared to defend fair housing claims. If you ignore them or fail to respond within the deadline, the court will issue a default judgment against you—which essentially means you’ve admitted that all the allegations against you are true. It’s an uphill battle from there to avoid liability for damages—and attorney’s fees.
Who Picks Up the Tab to Transfer Disabled Resident
as Reasonable Accommodation?
In July 2015, a court ordered a California community to transfer a disabled veteran and his family to a more expensive unit—and to let them to stay there till the end of the lease—as a reasonable accommodation for his disability.
What Happened: The resident was a combat Army veteran who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He lived with his wife and young daughter in a lower-level unit at a 450-unit community in California.
Due to ongoing construction near his unit, the resident asked the community to transfer his family to another unit away from the noise as a reasonable accommodation due to his disability.
According to the resident, the construction noise triggered nightmares, anxiety, and other symptoms because it reminded him of gunfire, explosions, and screaming, making him feel as if he were in a war zone. And, because it was intermittent and random, the noise reminded him of being shot at by enemy forces. He worried that staying in the unit could do permanent damage to his mental state and wasn’t sure whether—or when—he’d be able to return to the mostly functional baseline he had before construction began.
When he made the request, there was another available studio unit away from the construction, but the monthly rent was $600 more than his current rent. Allegedly, the community didn't dispute that he had a disability-related need to be relocated during the construction, but the parties reached a stalemate over whether he could pay his current rent to live in the more expensive unit.
After the dispute landed in court, the community offered to move the family to another unit farther away from the construction, at its expense, and charge them the current rent. By that time, however, the only unit available was a one-bedroom that rented out for close to $2,000 more than their current rent, and the community wanted to move them back to their original unit, at its expense, when the construction was done in early September.
The resident rejected the offer, asking for a court order to let them stay until their lease ended in December. He argued that the construction noise had already caused him significant insecurity and stress, which would get worse by moving for a short duration of time with an uncertain end date. Though construction was slated to end in September, it wasn’t yet clear when it would be done, so they’d be living in boxes and waiting to hear when they could move back. If they had the certainty of knowing they could stay until their lease ended in December, it would remove the uncertainty and give the resident more of a reprieve from his PTSD triggered by the construction.
Decision: Request granted.
Reasoning: The court ordered the community to make a reasonable accommodation by moving the residents to the more expensive unit away from construction noise—and to let them stay there—for the duration of their lease at their current rental rate.
The court said that the community didn’t appear to dispute that the cost of moving them to the new unit during the construction was a reasonable accommodation that wouldn’t cause an undue financial burden on the community. The only issue in dispute was whether the community should be allowed to move them back once the construction was done.
The court ruled that the increased financial burden on the community to let them stay in the new unit through the end of their lease, as opposed to staying until the end of construction, was minimal. Though it would lose $2,000 in revenue for every month the family stayed in the new unit, the community would have to keep their old unit vacant—and lose the fair market rent for that unit—during the construction. After doing the math, the court found that the difference between letting them stay in the new unit until the end of their lease would cost the community less than $1,000—which didn’t appear to be an undue burden for the 450-unit community.
In balancing the fairness and considering the harm the resident had already suffered, the court concluded that the resident’s need for a genuine reprieve from the construction noise and opportunity to have a more stable living situation far outweighed any incremental cost to the community.
- Holland v. The Related Companies, Inc., July 2015
Editor’s Note: You can’t reject an accommodation request simply because it imposes some financial costs on the community. Before rejecting a request because you think it’s too costly, you should compare the cost of the requested accommodation and your financial resources against the benefits to the disabled resident, and whether there are other, less expensive alternative accommodations that would effectively meet the resident’s disability-related needs.
Can Community Face Liability for Refusal to Provide Blind Resident
with Documents in Accessible Format as Reasonable Accommodation?
Earlier this year, a court refused to dismiss a discrimination complaint filed by a blind resident who accused her community of denying her request for documents in an accessible format as a reasonable accommodation.
What Happened: The resident, who was blind, lived in a California condominium community, which was owned and managed by a homeowners association (HOA) and a property management company.
Along with other condo owners, she was a member of the HOA, but she also served on the HOA’s board of directors. As part of her duties on the board, she said she was required to review and evaluate written materials before board meetings. On several occasions, she allegedly asked for the documents in an accessible format—namely, a format that was compatible with her screen reader, such as “Word” documents. Though they sometimes complied, she said they sometimes refused, and lawyers got involved in attempts to resolve the matter.
As time went on, management employees allegedly complained that providing the documents in accessible formats was time-consuming and expensive and that they already spent too much in legal fees in the matter.
After a series of meetings, she claimed, the HOA and property managers forced a vote to remove her from the board, but none of the documents about the vote were in an accessible format. Once off the board, the resident claimed that she continued to be excluded from accessing documents provided to all HOA members.
The resident sued the HOA and property managers for violating federal and state fair housing law by discriminating against her on the basis of her disability, denying her a reasonable accommodation, and retaliating against her.
The HOA and property managers asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that she couldn’t sue under fair housing law based on denial of documents in accessible format.
Decision: Request denied, allowing further proceedings in the case.
Reasoning: The court refused to dismiss the case, ruling that the resident could pursue her claims against the HOA and property managers for violating fair housing law.
The HOA and property managers argued that her reasonable accommodation claim should be dismissed because her inability to serve on the board didn’t interfere with her use and enjoyment of the community. Fair housing law prohibits communities from refusing to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, and procedures, but only when such accommodations are necessary to allow an individual with a disability equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.
The court rejected the argument, noting that she wasn’t claiming a right to serve on the board. But, given that she did serve on the board, the court said that the accommodation requested—reasonable access to documents to participate in board decisions—may be necessary for her equal use and enjoyment of her home.
Furthermore, her accommodation request went beyond documents for participation on the board. She claimed that she was denied access to materials available to all association members, and that the deprivation of the materials affected her use and enjoyment of her home. Among other things, she alleged that her continued denial of communications segregated and isolated her, making her an unwanted member of the community since she wasn’t able to respond to association business or show up at community events.
- Donovan v. Woodbridge Maintenance Association, March 2015
Editor’s Note: The court also refused to dismiss the resident’s claim that the community retaliated against her for filing her reasonable accommodation request. Under the retaliation rules, it’s unlawful to “coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with” anyone exercising a fair housing right or assisting others who exercise that right. Under fair housing law, discrimination and retaliation are separate violations, so a community could face liability for retaliation, even if a resident’s discrimination claim is ultimately dismissed.
Landlords Accuse Property Insurer of Discrimination
for Denying Coverage for Renting to Section 8 Voucher Holders
In June 2015, a court in Connecticut refused to dismiss a fair housing case filed by owners of rental property accusing their insurance company of discrimination for denying them coverage—or charging higher premiums—because they rented to Section 8 voucher holders.
What Happened: The case was filed by the owners of several rental communities in Connecticut, where they rented units to tenants who received assistance from the Section 8 housing program administered by HUD. Under the program, participants found units in the private market and paid in rent 30 to 40 percent of their gross income while HUD paid a subsidy equaling the remainder of the rent.
According to one landlord, he owned three properties, each of which had a Latino resident who used a Section 8 voucher. In early 2014, he claimed that his property insurance company refused to renew his coverage because of the number of residents with Section 8 vouchers. As a result, he alleged that he had to get replacement coverage with less favorable terms at considerably more cost.
Another landlord, who owned a rental property with three units, said she also rented to residents using Section 8 vouchers over the years, each of whom was African American or Latino. In 2012, she alleged, the insurer increased her premiums after learning that two of the three units were rented to Section 8 voucher holders. When she refused to pay the increase, she said that the insurer cancelled her policy, so she had to get replacement coverage at less favorable rates and higher costs.
The landlords, along with a fair housing organization, sued the insurer, alleging violations of federal and state fair housing law.
The insurer asked the court to dismiss the case.
Decision: Request denied, allowing further proceedings in the case.
Reasoning: The lawsuit is ongoing, but the court ruled that the landlords could pursue fair housing claims against the insurer under federal and state law. The federal claims accused the insurer of discrimination based on race and national origin based on the disparate impact of its decisions to deny coverage or charge higher premiums on landlords who rented to Section 8 housing voucher holders. The state law claims were for violating the state’s ban on discrimination based on source of income, including Section 8 housing vouchers.
- Viens v. America Empire Surplus Lines Ins. Co., June 2015
Editor’s Note: The decision was issued just days before the Supreme Court ruled that fair housing law covers disparate impact claims—accusations of discrimination based on the effects of a housing practice, even without proof of an intent to discriminate.
Take The Quiz Now
|September 2015 Coach's Quiz|