Victims of housing discrimination scored an important victory with the Eleventh Circuit’s October 10, 2019 decision in NAACP v. City of LaGrange, Georgia. The Court of Appeals held that current residents may pursue Fair Housing Act claims challenging discrimination in housing-related services and facilities. The decision rejects an argument regularly advanced by defendants and recently accepted by several district courts within the Eleventh Circuit.
Relman Dane & Colfax brought the case in May 2017 on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, Troup County Branch of the NAACP, Project South, and several individuals challenging the utility service policies of the City of LaGrange, Georgia. The City is the sole provider of basic utility services to residents, and denies water, gas, and electric services to homeowners and renters who owe court debt. It also requires utility applicants to produce a Social Security Number. The lawsuit alleges that LaGrange’s policy of conditioning utilities on the payment of unrelated court debt has an unjustified disparate impact on African Americans, who are overrepresented among those owing court debt. The Social Security Number requirement has an unjustified impact on Latinos, who make up a large majority of foreign-born non-citizens and people who are ineligible for Social Security numbers in LaGrange.
In December 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia dismissed the case, holding that Section 3604(b) of the Fair Housing Act does not apply to conduct occurring after a person has acquired housing. In reversing that decision, the Eleventh Circuit held that the section encompasses “some post-acquisition conduct and that the basic utility services in question here fall within the scope of services covered by § 3604(b).” This interpretation allows claims by current residents challenging the application of discriminatory terms and conditions as well as claims by victims of sexual and racial harassment by landlords and their employees.
The case has been remanded to the District Court for further proceedings. Relman Dane & Colfax’s litigation team, led by Reed Colfax and Alexa Milton, is co-counseling with the National Immigration Law Center and the Southern Center for Human Rights.