Before I started Finkenstadt Law, LLC I worked for a tremendous non-profit legal aid organization, the Legal Aid Justice Center, in Falls Church, Virginia. The day to day work of LAJC was defending immigrants in unpaid wage matters, consumer complaints, some immigration cases, and evictions. In the course of my eviction defense work, a series of families came to me from the same mobile home park in Fairfax Virginia complaining of the same treatment; one member of the household had a social security card and immigration status, but one or more of the other household members did not. In each case, the mobile home park management initiated eviction proceedings against the tenants on that basis. The park required each adult household member to provide either a social security number or a valid entry visa in order to live in the park regardless of the legal status of the leasee. (Mobile home tenancies are somewhat unique because the land is rented but the tenant owns the mobile home which sits upon the landlord’s property.)
LAJC and pro bono counsel from the law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP filed suit on behalf of five families from the Waples Mobile Home Park in 2016. I was the coordinating attorney for the team and conducted all of the initial client interviews. I gave one of my best press conferences for this case, and it gained quite a bit of attention because the policy affected so many green card holders. The families were all brave to come forward to have their names on a federal law suit when they could have easily decided to move and remain silent. But, the area of Fairfax county they lived in had great schools and they were home owners. They felt invested in the community and they felt discriminated against.
The suit alleged the mobile home park’s policy was discrimination under the Fair Housing Act using a disparate impact theory. A housing policy has an illegal discriminatory “disparate impact” if it has a disproportionate negative affect on a protected class of persons. In this case, the protected class of persons is Latino or persons of Latin American national origin (all of the clients were from Central and South American countries). The district court judge dismissed the case on a clouded rationale that the plaintiffs could not show any disparate treatment (which they had not alleged) and/or that their disparate impact was not sufficiently probable as to violate the Act.
The Fourth Circuit overturned the District Court in a precedent-setting opinion that holds the plaintiffs’ disparate impact claim is viable and the plaintiffs met the causality requirement showing the causal connection between the Social Security policy and the impact on a protected class.
The Circuit court also took the “opportunity to correct the district court’s grievous error in concluding that the female Plaintiffs’ legal status precluded them from making a prima facie showing of disparate impact, which is a misinterpretation of the robust causality requirement.” The district judge stated that the disputed policy did impact Latinos, but not because they were latino, but because the plaintiffs were undocumented. This view inserted an uncalled for intent element into the robust causation analysis. The Circuit court saw this as a serious misconstruction of the robust causality requirement.
The court vacated the grant of summary judgment to defendants and remanded the case for further proceedings.
The defendant landlords in the case appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but the Court declined to hear the case. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit case stands.
I am truly honored to have been part of this case and proud of the individual plaintiffs for persevering. When you have a feeling there is injustice in play, a lawyer (or several) can make all the difference.