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United States of America v. Branella

972 F. Supp. 294 (D. N.J. 1997)

LEASES; DISCRIMINATION—Discriminating against pregnant women in housing is discrimination based upon familial status. Co-owning spouses are both liable when one spouse engages in discriminatory conduct in renting an apartment.

A pregnant woman was told by a prospective landlord that occupancy restrictions of the condominium association might preclude the renting of the landlord’s individually owned one-bedroom apartment to the pregnant woman because the unit would be occupied by two people, the woman and her child. The next day, the woman called the condominium project’s rental office and was told there were no occupancy restrictions applicable to the unit in question. The woman called the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which filed a complaint alleging discriminatory housing practices on the basis of familial status in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Discrimination on the basis of familial status, consists of discrimination against parents or other custodians living with children under the age of 18, and is part of the Fair Housing Act out of an express concern for single-parent, young, and poor families. The Act extends to pregnant women and also makes it illegal to represent to a prospective tenant, because of familial status, that a dwelling is unavailable for rent when it is in fact available. A prima facie showing under the Act requires a plaintiff to show either intentional disparate treatment or disparate impact, which does not require proof of discriminatory intent. The landlord moved for summary judgment.

In denying the landlord’s motion, the District Court began by finding this claim to be based on intentional discrimination. By definition, intentional discrimination naturally requires a showing of impermissible intent. Therefore, a plaintiff must show that familial status was a motivating factor, although not necessarily the sole factor. Discriminatory intent may be shown by either direct or indirect evidence. To preclude summary judgment, the non-moving party must provide sufficient evidence with regard to every element of its prima facie case. The District Court easily found direct evidence of possible violations of the Act arising from the discrepancies between what the woman was told when she looked at the apartment and what she was told when she spoke to the rental office the following day. Finally, the Court held that co-owning spouses are both liable when one spouse engages in discriminatory conduct in renting an apartment.


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