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Court Upholds Fair Housing Disability Anti-Discrimination Protections

A federal appeals court held that refusing to rent and making discriminatory statements about a person’s medical condition and need for health care services violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

Background

Heidi and Juan Rodriguez sued Village Green Realty (VGR) after its agent, Blanca Aponte, told them that they could not continue renting a home through VGR. For two years, the Rodriguez family rented a single-family home through VGR. When the property was sold, the new owner initially agreed to continue renting to the family, but VGR said they later reconsidered when they learned of the seriousness of the then 11- year- old daughter’s medical conditions and that it included seizures. VGE insisted that the Rodriguez family move out and conveyed that the landlord had “concerns about [the daughter] being ill,” “access of emergency vehicles,” and “liability.” After VGR’s campaign of hostile messaging targeted at the daughter’s condition, the family eventually relocated.

The FHA prohibits a wide array of discriminatory housing practices against people with disabilities or who are regarded as having disabilities, including denying housing, saying that housing is not available when it is, or making discriminatory statements. The Rodriguezes argued that VGR had violated all three of these provisions. VGR argued that the daughter’s epilepsy and autism did not sufficiently interfere with her ability to function in life to meet the definition of “disability” and so she was not protected by the FHA. VGR also argued that their agent’s comments did not rise to the level of making housing unavailable and that they were not discriminatory statements.

AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief with the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the private law firm of Troutman Sanders LLP that emphasized the broad, remedial intent of the FHA, which seeks to combat discrimination based on unfounded assumptions and paternalistic attitudes and to further the integration of people with disabilities. Moreover, the brief took issue with the district court’s ruling that the daughter’s condition does not constitute a “disability” protected by law, and noted the voluminous evidence attesting to the daughter’s condition causing difficulty at school and in her daily living.

The appeals court held that an impairment that limits one’s ability to secure housing — or one erroneously perceived to limit ability to secure housing — constitutes a disability invoking protections of the FHA. It also held that VGR had stated that it was making housing unavailable to people with disabilities and, importantly, that discriminatory statements based on disability, can violate the law, whether or not the person hearing the statement actually has a disability.

What’s at Stake

Older people have disabilities at a greater rate than the general population. Congress’ intent in passing the FHA’s provisions regarding disabilities nearly two decades ago was to remedy the historical discrimination against people with disabilities and end their segregation and unnecessary exclusion from the mainstream. Allowing housing providers/realty agents to use language directing people with disabilities away from their communities and to areas near hospitals/health facilities unnecessarily isolates them, turns the clock back on decades of progress, and frustrates their ability to age in place. This ruling, which clarifies the law unequivocally in the Second Circuit, is a tremendous win.

Case Status

Rodriguez v. Village Green was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.