Supreme Court Upholds Disparate Impact Under Fair Housing Act, But Emphasizes Limits on Such Claims


Today, the Supreme Court in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. held that disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). In a 5-4 decision, the Court concluded that the use of the phrase “otherwise make available” in Section 804 of the Fair Housing Act supports disparate-impact claims. The Court also held that Section 805 of the Fair Housing Act (which applies to lending) permits disparate impact, reasoning that the Court “has construed statutory language similar to § 805(a) to include disparate-impact liability.” The Court also wrote that the 1988 amendments to the Fair Housing Act support its conclusion because (1) all the federal Courts of Appeals to have considered the issue at that time had held that the FHA permits disparate-impact claims; and (2) the substance of the amendments, which the Court characterized as exceptions from disparate impact, “is convincing support for the conclusion that Congress accepted and ratified the unanimous holdings of the Courts of Appeals finding disparate-impact liability.”

The Court emphasized, however, that “disparate-impact liability has always been properly limited in key respects . . . ” Specifically, the Court explained disparate-impact liability must be limited so companies “are able to make the practical business choices and profit-related decisions that sustain a vibrant and dynamic free-enterprise system.” “Entrepreneurs must be given latitude to consider market factors,” the Court explained. The Court clarified further that a variety of factors, including both “objective” and “subjective” factors, are “legitimate concerns.”

To prevent what the Court characterized as “abusive disparate-impact claims,” the Court emphasized that the three-step burden-shifting framework used to analyze disparate-impact claims must be applied rigorously by courts and government agencies. At the first step in the framework, the Court noted that a “robust causality requirement” must be satisfied to show that a specific policy caused a statistical disparity to “protect defendants from being held liable for racial disparities they did not create.” “[A] disparate-impact claim that relies on a statistical disparity must fail if the plaintiff cannot point to a defendant’s policy or policies causing that disparity.” The Court emphasized that “prompt resolution of these cases [by courts] is important.”

With respect to the second step of the framework, the Court, citing the seminal Title VII case of Griggs v. Duke Power, further explained that “[g]overnmental or private policies are not contrary to the disparate-impact requirement unless they are ‘artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers.’” The Court stated that this is critical to ensure that defendants “must not be prevented from achieving legitimate objectives.”

Finally, under the third step of the framework, the Court emphasized that before rejecting a “business justification,” a court “must determine that a plaintiff has shown that there is an available alternative practice that has less disparate impact and serves the entity’s legitimate needs.” (internal quotations and alterations omitted). Significantly, the Court clarified that the plaintiff bears the burden of showing a less discriminatory alternative in the third step of the burden-shifting framework.

Without a rigorous application of this burden shifting framework, the Court cautioned that disparate-impact liability could be used to replace nondiscriminatory private choice: “Were standards for proceeding with disparate-impact suits not to incorporate at least the safeguards discussed here, then disparate-impact liability might displace valid governmental and private priorities, rather than solely removing artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers. And that, in turn, would set our Nation back in its quest to reduce the salience of race in our social and economic system.” (internal citations and alterations omitted).

Although the Court did not expressly address whether its decision invalidates HUD’s disparate impact rule with its expansive burden shifting framework, the decision also does not rely on or defer to the discussion of the burden shifting framework contained in HUD’s disparate impact rule, notwithstanding the HUD rule’s extensive treatment of the burden shifting framework for disparate-impact claims under the FHA. The dissenting justices, however, concluded that given what they called “this unusual pattern” regarding the promulgation of the HUD rule, “there is an argument that deference may be unwarranted."