Nov 21, 2011

US Supreme Court To Hear Disparate Impact Claim

On November 7, 2011, the US Supreme court granted certiorari in Gallagher v. Magner, 619 F.3d 823, 829 (8th Cir. 2010) cert. granted, 10-1032, 2011 WL 531692 (U.S. Nov. 7, 2011).

The case arose out of the Eighth Circuit when several owners and former owners of rental properties in St. Paul, Minnesota brought consolidated actions, challenging the City of St. Paul's enforcement of its housing code.

In 1993, the City enacted the Property Maintenance Code which “[e]stablishes minimum maintenance standards for all structures and premises for basic equipment and facilities for light, ventilation, heating and sanitation; for safety from fire; for crime prevention; for space, use and location; and for safe and sanitary maintenance of all structures and premises.”

To enforce the code, the City established the Department of Neighborhood Housing and Property Improvement (“DNHPI”) as an executive department responsible for administering and enforcing the Housing Code. DNHPI was empowered to inspect all one- and two-family dwellings and administer and enforce laws regulating maintenance of residential property. This sounds all and well; protect the safety of residents and promotes the general appearance of the city … Until Andy Dawkins, the Director of DNHPI instructed his property inspectors to conduct proactive “sweeps” to detect housing code violations.

Dawkins also instructed his inspectors to “code to the max”, by writing up every violation that the inspectors would see, in addition to complaints about violations brought to the DNHPI’s attention by neighbors and other residents of the City. A “user-friendly” reporting system was also set up to allow neighbors and residents of the city to file complaints.

One can only imagine the ensuing tsunami of strategically-placed "complaints" neighbors could volley at each other, but the DNHPI employed a specific variety of strategies for renter-occupied dwellings. These included orders to correct or abate conditions, condemnations, vacant-building registration, fees for excessive consumption of municipal services, tenant evictions, real-estate seizures, revocations of rental registrations, tenant-remedies actions, and even, court actions.

While the DNHPI may sound like the HOA from Hell, its effects were broad, and far reaching. The DNHPI’s tactics fell heavily on low-income, African-American tenants living in privately-owned housing. The Appellant-Plaintiffs included individuals who own or formerly owned rental properties in the City. These property owners allege that they have suffered increased maintenance costs, fees, condemnations, and were forced to sell properties in some instances, due to as many as ten to twenty-five code violations, which ran the gamut of unsavory living conditions, such as rodent infestations and “inadequate sanitary facilities.”

Specifically, the Appellant-Plaintiffs allege that the City enforced the Housing Code more aggressively with regard to their properties because they rented to a disproportionately high amount of racial minorities, particularly African-Americans.

The 8th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision, except for the dismissal of the Appellant-Plaintiff’s disparate impact claim under the Fair Housing Act. The court held that the Appellant-Plaintiffs had satisfied the first query of the McDonnell-Douglas “Burden Shifting Analysis”, by successfully proving a prima facie case which requires showing “that the objected-to action[s] result[ed] in ... a disparate impact upon protected classes compared to a relevant population.”

The Judge correctly held that this was shown by four things which he ruled were sufficient to advance a theory of disparate impact:

(a) The City experienced a shortage of affordable housing
(b) Racial minorities, especially African-Americans, made up a disproportionate percentage of lower-income households in the City that rely on low-income housing.
(c) The City's aggressive Housing Code enforcement practices increased costs for property owners that rent to low-income tenants.
(d) The increased burden on rental-property owners from aggressive code enforcement resulted in less affordable housing in the City.
Gallagher v. Magner, 619 F.3d 823, 835 (8th Cir. 2010).

Thus, the court held that “given the existing shortage of affordable housing in the City, it is reasonable to infer that the overall amount of affordable housing decreased as a result. And taking into account the demographic evidence in the record, it is reasonable to infer racial minorities, particularly African-Americans, were disproportionately affected by these events.” Id.

In contrast, the City argued that “[the] Appellants must do more than show that the Housing Code increases the cost of low-income housing and that African-Americans tend to have lower incomes.” Id. at 836. The court, however, held that in viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the moving party, “the evidence demonstrates that there is a shortage of affordable housing and that the City's aggressive code enforcement exacerbated that shortage.” Id.

Turning to the second query of the McDonnell-Douglas test, the court held that “the City has shown that enforcement of the Housing Code promotes the objectives of providing minimum property maintenance standards, keeping the City clean and housing habitable, and making the City's neighborhoods safe and livable.” Id. at 37.
The game goes into overtime, with the burden once again shifting to the plaintiffs to “offer a viable alternative that satisfies the [City's] legitimate policy objectives while reducing the ... discriminatory impact” of the City's code enforcement practices.” Id.

To do so, the Plaintiffs used the City's former program for Housing Code enforcement called “Problem Properties 2000” (“PP2000”). The program’s lists of goals and tactics of included: “identification of properties with a history of unresolved or repeat Housing Code violations, meeting with the owners individually, encouraging the owners to take a more business-like approach to managing their properties, keeping closer tabs on changes of ownership, and using consistent inspectors at each property.” Id. at 838.

Appellant-Plaintiffs contend that PP2000 embodied a flexible and cooperative approach to code enforcement, which achieved the goals of code enforcement while maintaining a consistent supply of affordable housing, something that, the Appellant-Plaintiffs argue, the DNHPI failed to do.

The City argued that this approach would not “reduce the alleged impact on protected class tenants,” and the District Court agreed with them, reasoning that “because participating landlords were not excused from compliance with the Housing Code, they would still incur the same costs of compliance with the housing code, leaving any alleged discriminatory effect on African-Americans unchanged.” Id.

However, the Court disagreed, stating that the Plaintiff-Appellants “offer[ed] evidence that the challenged enforcement practices burdened rental-property owners and thereby reduced affordable housing options. There is also evidence that PP2000 generated a cooperative relationship with property owners, achieved greater code compliance, and resulted in less financial burdens on rental property owners. It is reasonable to infer from these facts, viewed most favorably to Appellants, that PP2000 would significantly reduce the impact on protected class members.” Id.

Thus, the Court of Appeals overruled the District Court’s finding on the issue of disparate impact. The US Supreme Court granted certiorari, and is set to hear the case later this Spring, in 2012. The potential to change the landscape of Fair Housing litigation in this case is huge. The Disparate Impact test has been an invaluable tool in the fight against facially-neutral laws that, as applied, present an onerous burden on a protected class of people. What the Supreme Court will do in this case remains unclear, and the court may or may not strike down the McDonnell-Douglas "Burden Shifting" analysis, as they struck down the Trafficante case earlier this year.