Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments on Fair Housing Act Disparate Impact Case


This morning, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, in which Texas challenged the disparate impact theory of discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Twice before, the Court granted certiorari on this issue, but in both cases the parties reached a settlement prior to oral arguments.

As described further below, in their questions to counsel, the Justices focused on (i) whether the phrase “making unavailable” in the FHA provides a textual basis for disparate impact, (ii) whether three provisions within the 1988 amendments to the FHA demonstrate congressional acknowledgement that the FHA permits disparate impact claims, and (iii) whether they should defer to HUD’s disparate impact rule.

“Disparate treatment” discrimination under the FHA is defined as intentional discrimination in the provision of housing on the basis of a protected class, such as race, religion, or national origin. However, to assert a “disparate impact” claim, a plaintiff need not show any intent to discriminate by the defendant in order to establish a prima facie case. Although eleven federal courts of appeals have recognized disparate impact discrimination, all of these decisions were issued prior to the Supreme Court’s holding in Smith v. City of Jackson. In Smith, the Court held that language addressing “adverse effects” in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) provided textual support for disparate impact claims under the ADEA, as it does under Title VII. One of the issues addressed in Inclusive Communities is whether the FHA contains “effects-based” language permitting disparate impact claims.

Counsel for Texas argued that the Court’s holding in Smith required the Court to hold here that disparate impact claims were barred by the statutory text of the FHA, because the FHA lacks the “effects” language present in the ADEA and Title VII. Justices Scalia, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, however, focused on the language of Section 804 of the FHA which provides that it is unlawful to “otherwise make unavailable or deny a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.” These Justices asked whether the phrase “otherwise make unavailable” is the equivalent of the “adversely affect” language in other civil rights statutes. Counsel for Texas responded that “making unavailable” is an active verb, and therefore requires an affirmative action intended to make a dwelling unavailable. In response, Justice Scalia asked whether “adversely affects” similarly required action on the part of a defendant.

The Justices also focused on Congress’s 1988 amendments to the FHA, which created three exceptions from liability under the FHA for (i) appraisers under Section 805(c), (ii) decisions based upon an individual’s prior conviction for manufacturing or distributing illegal drugs under Section 807(b)(4), or (iii) the application of local, state, or federal restrictions regarding the maximum number of occupants permitted to occupy a dwelling under Section 807(b)(1). Justice Scalia stated that the Court is required to read the statute as a whole, including these exceptions. Justice Scalia noted that “what hangs me up” is how these exceptions can be reconciled with the statutory text if the FHA does not permit disparate impact claims. Counsel for Texas responded that these exceptions also apply to disparate treatment claims, and do not suggest specific Congressional acknowledgement that the FHA permits disparate impact claims.

Next, the Justices asked counsel for Respondent Inclusive Communities whether the FHA’s “because of” language required intent to discriminate. Justices Kagan and Breyer specifically noted that the Court had recognized disparate impact claims under other civil rights statutes containing similar “because of” language. Counsel agreed and argued that there was no basis for treating the FHA’s “because of” language differently.

Justice Alito asked counsel for Respondents whether the 1988 amendments make disparate impact claims cognizable under the FHA if the original act did not. Justice Alito asked whether the 1988 amendments expanded the act. Counsel responded that the amendments did not expand the FHA—rather, that disparate impact was permitted in the original act.

Next, the Solicitor General directed the Court to HUD’s recent disparate impact rule and urged the Court to give deference to HUD’s interpretation under Chevron and noted that HUD issued its rule within days of the Court’s grant of certiorari in Magner v. Gallagher, a prior case raising the same issue. Justice Alito asked whether the Court should be “troubled” by the use of Chevron to “manipulate” the Court’s decisions. The Solicitor General responded that HUD had taken the position that the FHA permits disparate impact claims since 1992.

The Solicitor General further noted that defendants in disparate impact cases have protections under the burden-shifting framework, because claimants must point to a “specific practice” that gives rise to the alleged disparity to establish a prima facie case. Justice Breyer responded by asking whether it is necessary to eliminate disparate impact altogether given the protections provided by the burden-shifting framework.

NOTE: Quotations in this client alert are based on the notes of those who attended oral arguments, and not from any official transcript.