We have been on a bit of a roll discussing standing lately, so I thought why not continue it, albeit with a different law. Today, let’s look at the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The case of the day is Brown v. Suri Hurley, LLC, here, from the Eastern District of California cited on June 20, 2023. My thanks to Prof. Leonard Sandler, Clinical Law Professor at the University of Iowa, for sending along the case to me. As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories and they are: facts; court’s reasoning that plaintiffs have standing to pursue an FHA claim; and court’s reasoning that plaintiffs have standing to pursue California FEHA claims. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.
Plaintiff Haygood, applied to lease a unit in an apartment complex owned and operated by the defendant. Plaintiffs alleged that prior to signing the lease agreement that they informed one of the defendant’s employees that another individual, Brown, would live in the apartment along with her service dog. A factual dispute existed as to who Haygood brought along with him to complex when he was checking it out. In November 2021, Haygood entered into an agreement to lease the unit, but the lease did not list Brown as an occupant or reference a service dog. Haygood attested that an employee of the defendant, for reasons unknown to him, insisted that the lease be in his name even though the employee knew that Brown and her dog would live in the unit. Haygood and Brown both attested that Brown and her dog have lived in the unit since the inception of the lease in November 2021. Evidence was submitted that as of November 19, 2021, defendant’s employee was on notice that both Brown and her dog were residing in the unit. The employee attested that she first noticed that Brown and her dog were residing in the unit on May 18, 2022.
On June 4, 2022, defendant served Haygood with a three day notice to perform conditions and/or covenants or quit. In response, Haygood explained to the general manager of the apartment complex that Brown was the guest, that she was Haygood’s wife, and that the dog was a service animal. In response, the general manager purportedly told Haygood that the apartment community would not required to accommodate assistance animals so they did not have to accommodate Brown’s assistance animal. Defendant attested that shortly after the general manager spoke with Haygood, the general manager emailed Haygood an application to add his wife to the lease and an application to keep a service animal in the unit. The email requested a copy of Brown’s driver’s license, two recent pay stubs, and the doctor documents, training documents, and pictures that the service animal application asked for.
Court’s Reasoning That Plaintiffs Have Standing to Pursue an FHA Claim
- The FHA permits a civil action to be brought by any aggrieved person, which is defined as anyone claiming to have been injured by a discriminatory housing practice or anyone believing that such person will be injured by a discriminatory housing practice about to occur. So, any person harmed by discrimination, whether or not the target of the discrimination, can sue to recover for his or her own injury.
- Defendant cites no authority supporting the view that the FHA requires a plaintiff to have formally applied for housing or to have been listed on a lease agreement in order to have standing.
- Even if defendant had made such a showing, defendant does not dispute that Haygood would be aggrieved by the eviction of his wife.
- Plaintiffs argument that the defendant violated their rights when its representative allegedly stated that the apartment community was not required to accommodate assistance animals, so they did not have to accommodate Brown’s assistance animal is sufficient to confer standing.
- The FHA makes it unlawful for owners or their agents to make any statements with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling indicating any preference, limitation, or discrimination based upon handicap or an intention to make any such preference, limitation or discrimination. This section of the FHA applies to all oral notices or statements by a person engaged in the rental of a dwelling.
- That the general manager sent plaintiffs an email indicating that the apartment might accommodate a service animal if plaintiffs were to provide sufficient documentation indicates that the general manager was involved in the decision-making process. Further, that statement was uttered in the days between issuing the plaintiffs an eviction notice and providing them a service animal application, so it cannot reasonably be understood as unrelated in time to the decision-making process.
Court’s Reasoning That Plaintiffs Have Standing to Pursue California State Law Claims
- The Ninth Circuit has determined that the same standards apply to FHA claims and the California version of that law, Unruh Act also known as the FEHA. So since the standards are the same, the state law claims can proceed.
- Plaintiffs allege that the general manager of defendant’s apartment complex told them directly that the apartment does not accommodate service dogs. Even in the absence of further refusals to accommodate, such pronouncements can constitute actionable discrimination under the Unruh Act.
- Clearly, the defendant needs lots of training with respect to service animals and emotional support animals when it comes to the FHA. From what I see in my practice, lots of owners of apartment complexes need that kind of training (providing training is a significant part of my practice). Also, this blog entry of ours discussing the latest HUD circular is very much on point and is must reading.
- From the few facts we see in this opinion, it is quite possible that the HUD circular was not complied with in numerous ways.
- As we discussed here, it is entirely possible that the HUD circular would be given deference by the courts.
- The ADA and the FHA both deal with discrimination against persons with disabilities. However, the laws are statutorily very different from each other once you get outside of how a person with a disability is defined (there is even some debate about that point as well).
- Standing is easier to achieve under the FHA than it is under the ADA due to the statutory differences.
- A person does not have to be on a lease to have standing to pursue an FHA claim.
- Service animals and emotional support animals are an entirely different kettle of fish. See this blog entry.
- The FHA still uses the term “handicap,” in places. I really wish they would change that as that term has been out of date for quite some time.