Posted by: Patricia Salkin | July 8, 2008

11th Circuit Court of Appeals Says Landlord Can Assert Tenants’ Rights

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the owner of an apartment complex has standing to assert the rights of its tenants to equal protection of the laws in a lawsuit claiming the town used its land-use regulations to expel Hispanic immigrants.

 

Young owns a 30-unit apartment complex in Jupiter, a town about 30 miles north of Palm Beach. The complex is in an area of the town called “Center Street.” When Young bought the complex in 2000, Jupiter was beginning to experience an influx of Hispanics attracted by the local job market. Because its apartments were relatively affordable, Young’s complex and the other apartment buildings in the Center Street area became largely occupied by Hispanic immigrant workers. This caused concern to some citizens of the town who believed the workers were illegal immigrants and were depressing the local economy.

 

According to Young’s complaint, the town began enforcing practices and policies intended to coerce the workers into leaving, including targeting landlords, such

as Young, that provided affordable housing to Hispanic immigrants. In May 2004, the town adopted an “Overcrowding Ordinance” providing that no more

than five unrelated persons could occupy any housing unit. Young claimed the discriminatory motive for this facially neutral ordinance was apparent throughout the enactment process. It quoted participants at a planning and zoning commission meeting as saying the proposed ordinance was intended to eliminate the “problem” posed by the workers on Center Street.

 

On Jan. 11, 2005, police and building officials raided the Young Apartments in the dead of night without an inspection warrant. The city initiated four code violation cases against Young, claiming violations of the overcrowding ordinance and building code violations associated with damage from a hurricane in

September 2004. Young negotiated an extension of the town’s deadline to correct defects to Feb.18, in return for waiving its right to appeal the citations. Young was unable to complete roof repairs in time, so the town condemned 14 of its 30 units. That action, Young claims, caused a pending sale of the complex to fall through.

 

Young filed a civil rights suit against the town, and the town manager and building official in their individual capacities. The suit alleged violations of the

14th Amendment by the defendants. The district court dismissed the complaint.

The principal issue on appeal, the appeals court said, was whether Young had standing to bring a race-based discrimination claim against the town. It was

clear, the court said, that Young’s complaint met the constitutional requirements for standing. The question was whether it also satisfied prudential requirements.

The lower court ruled Young did not have standing to complain of racial or ethnic discrimination on behalf of its Hispanic tenants. The appeals court disagreed, for

two reasons. First, the trial court disregarded the fact that Young sued to redress its own mistreatment at the hands of the town resulting from the alleged discriminatory targeting of Hispanic residents. Second, to the extent Young raised claims implicating the rights of its tenants, the district court wrongly concluded prudential considerations should bar the claims.

 

Many courts have ruled businesses have standing to bring civil rights claims against state officials who are hurting their business by discriminating against their customers, the court said. The non-minority plaintiff’s own injury is sufficient to confer standing, quite apart from the question whether the plaintiff also has

standing to assert the rights of minority third parties. For example, in a 1983 decision, the 4th Circuit ruled a non-minority housing developer had standing to bring an equal protection claim, because if the county singled him out for disadvantageous treatment because of his willingness to rent to minority tenants, he suffered injury to his own right to be free from official discrimination. Because Young claimed it was directly injured by the city’s actions, it had standing on its own behalf to challenge the city’s discriminatory actions.

 

Principles of judicial self-restraint normally counsel against granting a plaintiff standing to assert the rights of third parties, the court continued. One exception to that rule allows businesses to advocate on behalf of their customers against discriminatory actions that interfere with the business relationship. That exception applied in this case. To bring a claim on behalf of a third party, the plaintiff must have suffered an injury that gives him a sufficiently concrete interest in the outcome of the dispute; must have a close relationship with the third party; and there must be some reason why the third party cannot protect his or her own interests.

 

This case met all of those criteria, the court said.  First, Young had a concrete interest in the outcome of the dispute. It claimed injury to an economic interest

that would not be remedied in a suit by the tenants themselves. Second, the interests of Young and its tenants are sufficiently aligned that Young will be able

to advocate effectively on the tenants’ behalf. Both Young and the tenants were targeted by the town in a single course of action intended to drive the tenants out

of town and the landlord out of business. Third, it is likely the tenants would be hindered from asserting their own rights in this case. While Young is willing and able to pursue its claim in court, the Hispanic tenants may be reluctant to raise such claims for fear of retaliation.

 

Young Apartments, Inc. v. Town of Jupiter, 2008 WL 2277521 (11th Cir. 6/5/2008 )

 

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200712076.pdf

 

Special thanks to James Lawlor of the Land Use Legal Report for sharing this abstract from the June 16, 2008 issue of the Land Use Legal Report. For information about the Report, email Jim at: landlaw@verizon.net


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