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Housing discrimination doesn’t need to be explicit to qualify as discrimination

Connecticut

,

United States

Background

In Lopez v. William Raveis Real Estate, Inc., No. SC 20574 (Conn. 2022), the plaintiff, through her real estate agent, submitted an application and offer to lease a rental apartment. The owner’s real estate agent spoke with the owners of the rental unit and told the plaintiff’s real estate agent that he would “get the lease over to [her].” The plaintiff’s real estate agent then sent the owner’s agent blank paperwork for the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program (“Section 8”) to accompany the plaintiff’s application to lease the rental apartment. After the owner’s agent received the Section 8 documents, an email conversation took place between the two agents in which they discussed the fact that the plaintiff was a Section 8 tenant. The owner decided to rent to another tenant (at 4-5).

The plaintiff subsequently brought an action claiming that the defendants violated General Statutes § 46a-64c(a) by:

  1. denying her the opportunity to rent property on the basis of her lawful source of income, in violation of subdivision (1) of § 46a-64c(a); and
  2. making a statement with respect to the rental of a dwelling that indicated a preference, limitation, or discrimination on the basis of lawful source of income, in violation of subdivision (3) of § 46a-64c(a) (at 5).

The trial court rendered judgment in favor of the defendants, concluding that the plaintiff failed to prove that the defendants had discriminated against her on the basis of her lawful source of income. On appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court and held that the statements violated § 46a-64c(a) (at 3).

The Law

The Connecticut Supreme Court noted that section 46a-64c(a)(3) is silent as to the proper standard by which to analyze statements alleged to violate the statute, leaving the statute susceptible to multiple, plausible interpretations as to the proper standard (at 7).

The Court explained that when a notice, statement, or advertisement that allegedly violates § 46a-64c(a)(3) is plainly discriminatory on its face, courts need not examine the surrounding context or the speaker's intent to determine whether the statement indicates any impermissible preference, limitation, or discrimination to the ordinary listener. However, when a notice, statement, or advertisement is not facially discriminatory, courts may consider the context and intent of the speaker to aid in determining the way an ordinary listener would have interpreted it (at 11).

The statements of the owner’s agent were discriminatory

The Court ultimately agreed with the trial court that the statements, in this case, were not facially discriminatory. However, when considered in context, they stated a preference with respect to a lawful source of income in violation of § 46a-64c(a)(3) (at 11).

In support of this finding, the Court noted that after the owner’s agent learned of the plaintiff's Section 8 status, she abruptly shifted gears to inform the plaintiff’s agent that they did not have an offer without a signed lease and that the owner’s agent was not sure that the owner would want to wait for the Section 8 process. In the hours following her receipt of the plaintiff’s section 8 forms, she stated four separate times that she was not previously aware of the plaintiff's intention to use a section 8 voucher to pay the rent (at 12).

The Court held that it was a clear error for the trial court to find that the owner’s agent’s statements did not indicate even so much as an intention to make an impermissible consideration of section 8 in the rental decision. Accordingly, the Connecticut Supreme Court concluded that the plaintiff was entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to liability on her § 46a-64c(a)(3) claim against the owner’s agent (at 14-15).

May 30, 2022
Lopez v. William Raveis Real Estate, Inc., No. SC 20574 (Conn. 2022)