SCOTUS OKs Liability for Unintentional Housing Discrimination

Stop calling it fair housing law. If it was ever a matter of fairness, it isn’t now.

Under today’s 5-4 Supreme Court holding in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, you can be held liable for housing discrimination whether or not you or anyone in your organization intended to discriminate. Instead – to quote Justice Anthony Kennedy, who joined with the Court’s four liberals in a 5-4 majority – you might have been influenced by “unconscious prejudice” or “stereotyping” when you lent money or rented apartments or carried on appraisal or brokerage or planning functions. What you did had “disparate impact” on some race or other legally protected group, and now you’re caught up in potentially ruinous litigation in which it’s up to you to show that you had a good reason for what you did and could not have arranged your actions in some other way that had less disparate impact.   

The decision is quite broad in its implications. For example, in employment discrimination law, where disparate impact has long been legally established, it is increasingly legally dangerous to ask job applicants about criminal records, or carry out criminal background checks on them before a job offer, for fear of disparate impact. Is it still safe to ask such questions of prospective tenants in your apartment building? Better ask your lawyer.  

The case hinged on statutory interpretation, and as Justice Alito’s dissent makes clear, King v. Burwell wasn’t the only case decided today in which a majority mangled the clear meaning of a law’s text to get the result it wanted. As Justice Ginsburg was frank enough to note at oral argument, “”If we’re going to be realistic about it…in 1968, when the Fair Housing Act passed, nobody knew anything about disparate impact.” On the contrary, the law’s text specified that it was banning decisions taken “because of” race, and to find a loophole the majority was obliged to fall back on an incidental clause banning the making “unavailable” of a “dwelling,” which we are meant to believe snuck in a huge new area of liability. As the majority stresses, many appeals courts did go along with a liberal interpretation. But the Executive Branch did not – in 1988 it took the position before the Court that the law did not permit disparate impact claims – while Congress hedged the issue in later enactments so as to keep all sides on board a compromise. 

Despite ridiculous claims (like that in a Vox headline) that the Court today “saved” the Fair Housing Act or that a contrary decision would have “gutted” it, the great majority of litigation under the Act has been on disparate-treatment complaints (which, as Alito notes, can already use disparate impact as evidence of pretext.) But the Obama administration, as I’ve documented elsewhere, has launched a huge effort to turn disparate-impact law into an engine of revolutionary changes in local government and housing practice, introducing, for example, such concepts as a local government obligation to pursue subsidized federal housing grants and to enact laws forcing private landlords to accept Section 8 tenants. 

As the four dissenters make clear, a compliance and litigation nightmare now looms for many in real estate, finance, and local government as they try to dodge liability. “No matter what [Texas] decides” in the case at hand on locating low-income housing, for example, one or another group “will be able to bring a disparate-impact case” based either on the theory that projects should be put in poorer areas (which enables building more of them) or in affluent areas (which will benefit some future residents). 

If you have time to read only one bit of today’s opinion, read Justice Clarence Thomas’s separate dissent. Thomas brilliantly recounts the EEOC’s successful subversion of its own founding statute, culminating in the Court’s profoundly mistaken opinion in Griggs v. Duke Power, the employment case that founded disparate impact theory. “We should drop the pretense that Griggs’ interpretation of Title VII was legitimate,” he writes. It’s a tour de force – and already being denounced vehemently on the Left.