Thursday, July 24, 2014

Court of Appeals revives Fair Housing Act claim

This housing discrimination case alleges that a senior citizens' mobile home community discriminated against an elderly couple by denying them a chance to live there because of their disabled son. The district court dismissed the claims mid-trial, but the Court of Appeals reinstates them and says the plaintiffs have a claim under the Fair Housing Act.

The case is Olsen v. Stark Homes, decided on July 18. After the Olsens told the housing community that their 42 year-old clinically depressed son had to live with them, their application to live there was denied. When a non-profit housing organization sent in "testers" to see if younger "applicants" or those without disabled children were allowed to live there, some of these applicants were apparently given the green light. When the case went to trial, after a few days, the district court dismissed the case and discharged the jury, ruling that there was no evidence that the son's disability was the reason why his parents were denied the housing opportunity. The Court of Appeals (Kearse, Jacobs and Parker) disagrees and reinstates the case for a new trial.

The district court said there was no evidence that the son's disability was the reason why the parents were denied the right to live there. In doing so, the court violated a basic principle governing motions to dismiss: it must view the evidence in the light most favorably to the plaintiff in determining whether the plaintiff has a case. For you non-lawyers, the theory behind this is that the jury may also view the evidence favorably to the plaintiff and disregard the defendant's evidence. Only by taking the plaintiff's side of story as true can the trial court determine whether the plaintiff has a chance to win the case. If in doubt, let the case go to the jury. This does not mean the plaintiffs will win the case. It only means they can win the case.

Here, the son's psychologist sent the housing community a letter that said the son was disabled. Defendants argued that the letter does not allow the jury to infer unlawful intent to discriminate, but the jury could draw different conclusions about defendants' motives from the content of the letter. As the Court of Appeals writes "there was ample evidence that the letter was provided in response to a concern expressed by Stark (the housing guy) as to whether, if Donald Jr. lived at Glenwood with his parents, he would be able, in light of his disability to get along on his own for short periods of time if they were not there."

The jury could draw other inferences favorable to plaintiff, including that (1) the parents were approved to live there without the son and that (2) Stark told the mother that he "didn't need any trouble in this park like that," and that "trouble like that" referred to the son's emotional illness. And, a tester was allowed to live there with a younger sister who was not disabled.

The reasonable accommodation claim under the Fair Housing Act was also improperly thrown out. Yes, the son was not 55 years old. But that is not why defendants sought dismissal of the accommodation claim. They argued instead that the son was not disabled and there was no evidence that defendants knew the son could not live without his parents. But the evidence permits contrary inferences: that the son suffered from major depression and that defendants knew that he had to live with his parents.

When the Court of Appeals reinstates a claim that was dismissed during trial (or that the district court rejects despite a plaintiff's verdict), the Second Circuit provides a good summary of the legal standards governing judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50. This case is no different. What the Court is saying is that close cases go to the jury. If the district court jumps the gun, particularly mid-trial, it runs the risk of setting up a re-trial.

No comments: