In the last days of the Trump administration HUD promulgated a new regulation concerning disparate impact claims under the Fair Housing Act whose intent was very clearly to make such claims difficult even to plead, let alone prove.¹ Its implementation remains stayed by a federal court, but in the Fifth Circuit that may not matter because earlier Fifth Circuit cases are even more restrictive. Prompted by the discussion in Treece v. Perrier Condo. Owners Assn., Inc., 2021 WL 533720 (E.D. La. Feb. 12, 2021) I decided to take a hard look at the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. v. Lincoln Prop. Co., 920 F.3d 890, 895 (5th Cir. 2019), cert. denied, 140 S. Ct. 2506 (2020). That turned out to be a bigger project than I expected, because as interpreted Lincoln Properties is incredibly restrictive, but those interpretations are almost certainly wrong. Clarification seems inevitable even with the existing conservative Supreme Court. Here’s why. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA, ADA - drive-by litigation, ADA - serial litigation, ADA - Standing, ADA Internet, ADA Internet Web, ADA Mootness, ADA Public Accommodation, ADA Web Access, FHA, FHA Reasonable Accommodation, Interactive Process Tags: ADA defense, ADA Multidistrict Litigation, FHA Defense, Hotel accessibility litigation, WCAG 3.0
Valentines Day, which has been in the stores since December 26, has finally arrived in reality. Since I last blogged a few weeks ago the courts have continued to decide cases and the blogosphere has continued to cover, or mis-cover, accessibility related news. Here’s a sweet collection of matters to read after you’ve finished your celebration of the day.
WCAG 3.0 – Will it really matter at all?
The preliminary draft of WCAG 3.0 has generated a lot of attention. From a litigation defense standpoint the possible new standards are irrelevant, as is compliance with existing standards. Lawsuits are not filed to make the web more accessible; they are filed to make lawyers rich (or richer). As long as it is cheaper to settle than fight most businesses will continue to pay off the plaintiffs lawyers regardless of how accessible their websites might be. For those who do care about accessibility the new standard adopts a different approach that is focused less on specific technical requirements and more on the actual experience of the disabled user. Lawyers will recognize this as similar (though with much more detail) to the meaningful access standard required by Title II of the ADA. It remains to be seen whether DOJ, which will almost certainly restart the regulatory process under the Biden administration, can balance the certainty of strictly technical standards against the purpose of the ADA, which is meaningful access. That balance and the courts’ willingness to require plausible allegations concerning web access in order to meet the Iqbal / Twombly pleading standard will determine the future of website accessibility litigation. If courts are willing to require plaintiffs to plead facially credible claims that they were denied meaningful access to the content of a website than a new regulatory standard based on meaningful access could slow down the litigation industry and help businesses make their websites accessible in a meaningful way. If not the abuse of the ADA for the benefit of lawyers will continue unabated. More
On October 9, which seems like an eternity ago based on the number of emails and texts I’ve gotten asking for contributions to various political parties and politicians, I reported on HUD’s new regulations on disparate impact claims published on September 24. It was a counterpoint to the decision in Connecticut Fair Housing Center v. CoreLogic Rental Property Solutions, LLC, 2020 WL 4570110 (D.Conn. August 7, 2020) holding that third party service providers could violate the FHA. I had to update the blog on October 22 when the National Fair Housing Alliance and others filed National Fair Housing Alliance v. Ben Carson, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Case No.3:20-cv-07388 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. That lawsuit attacked the legality of the new HUD regulations on numerous grounds. (the Complaint is 66 pages long). It wasn’t the only lawsuit in the works though. On October 25, 2020 the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts entered a Preliminary Injunction staying the effect of the new HUD rule. Massachusetts Fair Housing Center et al v. United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, Case No. 3:20-cv-11765 (October 25, 2020). Judge Mastoianni found that the changes constituted a “massive overhaul of HUD’s disparate impact standards” to the benefit of housing providers and the detriment of buyers and renters. Of the three grounds for ultimately overturning the regulation Judge Mastoianni relied on only one; that the new rule was “arbitrary and capricious.” He found that the regulation went beyond the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Dep’t of Hous. & Cmty. Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., 576 U.S. 519, 524 (2015), the leading case on disparate impact under the Fair Housing Act. Thus, it could not be justified as an effort to align regulations with case law. He also rejected HUD’s other reason for the regulation – that it provided greater clarity – on the ground that the new rule was far from clear.
Because the ruling only concerns a preliminary injunction there is no final decision on whether the HUD rule is arbitrary and capricious. For a preliminary injunction the court must only find that the plaintiff has a “substantial likelihood of success on the merits.” The order can and probably will be appealed. In the meantime the new Rule is stayed and HUD is forbidden to implement it. Stay tuned.
On October 7, 2020 HUD filed a charge of discrimination against Fairfield Properties and Pinewood Estates at Commack Condominium because they denied an accommodation for two emotional support dogs. FHEO No. 02-17-5246-8. The Charge includes the facts, which don’t seem to be disputed. It does not include an explanation of how HUD thinks these facts constitute discrimination, but HUD’s thinking on the subject can be inferred from the Charge and shows why landlords and condominium or owners associations must be careful even when dealing with truly meritless requests. HUD is perfectly capable of making a charge of discrimination that cannot be reconciled with the text of the Fair Housing Act or the case law interpreting it. That’s hardly news, but it is worth remembering. More
By Richard Hunt in Accessibility Litigation Trends, ADA, FHA, FHA Emotional Support Animals, FHA Reasonable Accommodation, FHA Regulation Tags: CoreLogic, criminal conviction screening, FHA Defense, HUD discriminatory effect, HUD disparate impact, Inclusive Communities, National Fair Housing Alliance v. Carson, Vanessa Bryant
The recent decision from Judge Vanessa Bryant in Connecticut Fair Housing Center v. CoreLogic Rental Property Solutions, LLC, 2020 WL 4570110 (D.Conn. August 7, 2020) was followed only weeks later by HUD’s final regulation on disparate impact claims, 85 FR at 60288, September 24, 2020.¹ The CoreLogic decision’s most important holding was that a third party tenant screening service could be liable for providing information that had a disparate impact on a protected class, but Judge Bryant’s denial of a slew of defense motions for summary judgment was a reminder of the potential power of disparate impact claims. HUD’s new regulation, titled “HUD’s Implementation of the Fair Housing Act’s Disparate Impact Standard” creates a set of landlord friendly rules for disparate impact claims that may make CoreLogic irrelevent.
NOTE: on October 22, 2020 the National Fair Housing Alliance and others filed National Fair Housing Alliance v. Ben Carson, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Case No.3:20-cv-07388 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. The lawsuit attacks the legality of the new HUD regulations on numerous grounds. (the Complaint is 66 pages long). It was presumably filed in a plaintiff friendly court, and the Ninth Circuit is a civil rights friendly circuit, but the legality of the rule will ultimately go to a Supreme Court that is far less friendly to civil rights legislation. If there is a change of administration in November this regulation is likely to be short lived, so housing providers should probably not make too much of it until we know where the political winds will decide to blow.