Fair housing case dismissed
on Feb 10, 2012 at 2:27 pm
UPDATE Monday 3:18 p.m. The letter of dismissal of this case is here.
A major civil rights case that the Supreme Court has had under review, testing minorities’ access to rental housing and cities’ power to enforce their codes on living quarters, is being dismissed by agreement of both sides. The case, Magner v. Gallagher (docket 10-1032), had been granted on November 7 and was to be argued February 29. When the parties involved in a case agree to dismiss, that is automatic, even in a case that the Court was preparing to decide.
The key issue in the case was whether the federal Fair Housing Act made it illegal for local governments to engage in housing code enforcement in a way that had a negative impact on minorities, even if there was no intentional bias. All federal appeals courts that have ruled on the issue had concluded that such “disparate impact” claims were allowed under the Act, but city officials in St. Paul, Minn., took the issue on to the Supreme Court, and gained review. The federal government, which supports the right to bring such claims, had joined in the case to defend the policy.
The case pitted city officials and their housing code enforcement agency against current and former owners of private rental properties, whose customers were mainly individuals or families with low incomes, with a large share of them — perhaps 60 to 70 percent — African-American tenants. The property owners had sued, contending that the city agency used aggressive tactics, including inspection “sweeps,” in order to check out code violations even when there were no complaints. Correction of the code violations the city found sometimes required expensive renovations.
A federal judge concluded that the property owners could pursue a claim of “disparate impact,” but ruled that they had not proved their claim. But, even if the enforcement policies did fall more heavily upon African-American tenants, the judge declared, the city had legitimate reasons for its approach. The Eighth Circuit Court disagreed, and ruled for the property owners.
The federal government, in joining in the case in the Supreme Court, argued that the Circuit Court was right in allowing the disparate-impact claim and in laying out the standard it would use to judge the claim, but that its ruling should be overturned because the Circuit Court had misapplied its standard. It argued that the property owners had not offered enough evidence to survive the city’s motion to dismiss the case without a full trial.
While the city officials had relied in the Supreme Court on the fact that the federal government had told the Court in 1988 that the Fair Housing Act applied only to intentional discrimination in housing policy, Justice Department lawyers countered that this was before Congress gave the government added authority to carry out the Act. And, the Department noted, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last November announced that it was planning to write a new rule to clearly establish disparate-impact liability, and to set new standards for judging such claims.
The case had drawn a significant amount of interest among civil rights groups, arguing that disparate-impact claims were important to maintaining equality in access to housing. Twelve states had also joined in supporting the property owners. Some business organizations and conservative legal advocacy groups had entered the case to support St. Paul officials.
(Disclosure: Attorneys in the law firm of Goldstein & Russell, affiliated with this blog, represented the property owners in the case. The author of this post, however, operates independently of the law firm’s legal practice.)