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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Housing Discrimination

Autism Speaks reports that a federal appeals court has upheld a HUD case against a West Virginia landlord.
The case involved a Charleston, WV landlord who imposed a series of conditions on a prospective tenant, Delores Walker, after she said her 48-year-old brother with "severe autism" would share the apartment. The landlord demanded that Walker obtain a note from her brother's doctor stating that he would not pose a liability threat, obtain a renter’s insurance policy with $1 million in liability coverage, and assume responsibility for any damage Walker's brother might cause to the property.

The landlord, Michael Corey, told Walker he was imposing the conditions based on his prior observations of “children with autism . . . flailing their arms and hollering and screaming in outrage.”
Walker elected not to pursue the rental, but HUD took up the case, arguing Corey had violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating on the basis of disability in his offer of the apartment. An administrative law judge found for Corey, but HUD reversed the judge's recommendations and imposed fines on Corey.

Corey then appealed to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The three-judge federal appeals panel upheld HUD's actions and further increased the fines.
From the opinion: 
Section 3604(c) of the FHA [Fair Housing Act] prohibits oral or written statements with respect to the rental of a dwelling that indicate a “preference, limitation, or discrimination” based on certain protected statuses, including disability....
Corey does not deny telling Ms. Walker that he intended to impose special conditions on the Walkers’ prospective tenancy, but disagrees that he violated § 3604(c). He argues that he imposed the conditions only after Ms. Walker’s “voluntary and unsolicited statement that her brother suffers from ‘severe autism and mental retardation.’” Pet’r’s Br. 20. Corey also notes that he never indicated a flat refusal to rent to the Walkers, “only that . . . risk insurance maybe [sic] required.” Id. at 21.

Corey’s arguments are unavailing. For one, the fact that Ms. Walker disclosed her brother’s disability does not excuse Corey’s discriminatory responsive statements. Nor does it matter that Corey did not refuse to rent to the Walkers; the statute simply prohibits statements to renters that indicate a limitation based on disability, and Corey admits to making such statements. This ends the inquiry, as substantial evidence supports the Secretary’s determination.
 Finally, we affirm the Secretary’s conclusion that the § 3604(f)(9) “direct threat” exception does not apply. Corey makes no showing that his discriminatory conduct was supported by any objective evidence that Mr. Walker posed a direct threat to persons or property, as is required to trigger the exception. See H.R. Rep. No. 711, at 30 (1988), reprinted in 1988 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2173, 2191. And even if Corey’s request for a meeting with Mr. Walker and a doctor’s note was, as he maintains, an attempt to obtain such objective evidence, Corey cannot justify the other discriminatory conditions he sought to impose, based as they were on unsubstantiated stereotypes about autistic people in general.