Fowler v. Borough of Westville

97 F. Supp.2d 602 (D. N.J. 2000)
  • Opinion Date: May 16, 2000

DISCRIMINATION; FAIR HOUSING ACT—It is not necessary to deny housing to violate the federal Fair Housing Act; discriminatory conduct alone will suffice.

A group of recovering alcoholics and drug users sued a municipality and its police department, alleging that the municipality’s use of its building code and harassment by the police was intended to drive them out of their special residences in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The FHA makes it unlawful to discriminate against “any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, ... because of a handicap ... .” The FHA defines “handicap” as a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities; a record of having such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment. The term, however, does not include current, illegal use of or addiction to a controlled substance. In this case, there were two group homes dedicated to recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. The residents were self-sufficient. House conflicts were resolved democratically, and any resident who relapsed was ejected from the house by the other residents. The properties were subjected to a series of house inspections and continuing police scrutiny. Eight building violations were issued. The municipality’s manager and a police official were alleged to have indicated that the municipality was endeavoring to close the group homes. The municipality and the police department conceded that drug and alcohol dependency may qualify as a “handicap,” but argued that one of the plaintiffs did not meet the definition of a handicapped person because he was a current drug user. In a deposition taken during the proceedings, that plaintiff stated that four months earlier he had used cocaine for about a month. Although the term “current drug user” is not defined in the FHA, courts have interpreted it to mean that the individual must have been in recovery long enough to have become stable. Here, the alleged drug use occurred after the lawsuit was filed. The Court held that the benchmark date was the date of the alleged discrimination and harassment which underlies the lawsuit, not the date on which the “dispositive motion is filed.” Accordingly, the Court refused to dismiss the affected plaintiff’s claims on that basis. The municipality and the police department also argued that, even if the residents qualified as “handicapped,” they could not prove that their respective handicaps actually limited a major life activity. The residents argued that even if that were true, they still met the definition of “handicapped” because they had a “record” or were “regarded as” being handicapped. The Court agreed. The municipality and police department argued that the residents could not show that they were denied housing because at no time were the properties closed or was anybody told that they could not reside in either of the two properties. The Court regarded this argument as a novel issue under the FHA. After examining the few cases that had considered the issue, the Court held that “conduct short of foreclosing a housing opportunity altogether may violate the statute.” In doing so, it followed the mandate of the United States Supreme Court to “give an expansive interpretation of the provisions of the FHA in order to effectuate its purposes.” Consequently, the Court concluded “that the FHA is directed at the elimination of discriminatory conduct, not merely discriminatory results ... .” Therefore, the residents’ claim was permitted to go forward. The municipality then argued that it did not discriminate against the residents because the eight building violation summonses were only issued to induce compliance with the municipality’s rental ordinances, and not because of any discriminatory animus. The Court pointed out that to determine whether an action is based upon “discriminatory intent” requires a sensitive inquiry into such circumstantial and direct evidence of intent as may be available. Accordingly, the Court believed that the residents offered sufficient evidence of discriminatory intent to survive a summary judgment motion. Although the municipality argued that the residents were not actually “denied” housing or any other “right,” the Court found that the residents could assert the claim under the NJLAD even if they were not actually denied housing. “The Law seeks to eradicate discrimination, not merely the intended consequences of discrimination and should be construed liberally.” If the municipality could show that discrimination, if proven, was ineffective, that fact might alter the amount or nature of damages available at trial, but it would not prevent the residents from asserting their claims under the Law.