Supreme Court to Hear Housing Discrimination Case

June 17, 2013 1:48 pm

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Justices to Consider Whether Discriminatory Intent Is Required for Lawsuits Brought Under Fair Housing Act

June 17, 2013

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NEW YORK – The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will hear arguments in a case interpreting the anti-discrimination provisions of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The question before the court is whether it is enough to show that the challenged policy or practice has a discriminatory effect, or whether the law only prohibits policies and practices that were adopted with a discriminatory intent.

“This question has been litigated extensively in the lower courts over many decades,” said Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program. “Every federal appeals court to consider the question has ruled that showing a discriminatory effect is enough to establish a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Congress has never suggested otherwise and we are hopeful that the Supreme Court will now agree.”

In the case, residents sued the New Jersey town of Mount Holly when it bought and demolished housing in a predominately Black neighborhood. The proposed replacement housing would not, as a practical matter, be available to the population that was displaced by the demolition. Residents claimed that the town’s actions had the effect of ejecting the Black residents and preventing them from returning. The town argued that simply demonstrating it displaced the mostly Black residents is not enough, and the plaintiffs must prove that city officials who made the decision were motivated by a desire to discriminate. A federal appellate court agreed with the former residents, and the town of Mount Holly appealed to the Supreme Court.

A similar case, Magner v. Gallagher, was supposed to be heard by the Supreme Court last term, but the case was withdrawn when the city of St. Paul, Minn., withdrew its appeal in the case weeks before it was scheduled to be heard. The ACLU noted in an amicus brief filed in Magner v. Gallagher, the Fair Housing Act’s focus on results is essential for protecting the rights of a number of groups that have a history of being discriminated against, including victims of domestic violence and racial minorities. The ACLU brief notes:

“Discriminatory barriers to equal housing opportunity remain deeply entrenched, however, even as they take on new forms. Contemporary forms of discrimination – such as race discrimination in subprime mortgage lending and sex discrimination against victims of domestic and sexual violence – offend the foundational antidiscrimination principle enunciated by Congress with the FHA’s original enactment and reaffirmed when the law was amended in 1988. For the same reasons disparate impact analysis has been a critical weapon in the statute’s anti-discrimination arsenal for over 40 years, it remains indispensable in making meaningful Congress’ promise to eradicate discrimination in housing law protects victims of domestic violence, who are disproportionately women, from losing their homes.”

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