Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 15, 2010

Condo Owners May Allege FHA Violations Based on Association’s Interpretation of Rules Dealing With Hallway Display of Religious Symbols

The Bloch family has lived in the Chicago condo for more than 30 years and Mrs. Bloch was on a rules committee that, in 2001, enacted a prohibition on  “mats, boots, shoes, carts, or objects of any sort” in the hallways outside their doors. The Blochs are observant Jews and their beliefs require that they keep a mezuzah (a case, smaller than a deck of cards, containing a scroll with passages from the Torah) on the outside door frame of their unit. In 2004, following a renovation that required temporary removal of the mezuzah, the board reinterpreted the rule to prohibit the mezuzah and removed it. When the Blochs reposted it, it was repeatedly removed. Other items, such as posters, pennants, wreaths, and crucifixes, were removed from other units. According to the Blochs, the association president also scheduled meetings for Friday evenings, aware that the Blochs’ religious obligations would prevent them from attending, and removed the mezuzah during the mourning period following the death of Mr. Bloch. The board eventually established an exemption for religious items like mezuzahs and the city and state (765 ILCS 605/18.4(h)) enacted laws limiting restrictions on religious symbols on doors in condominiums and rental properties. The remaining action for damages under the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 3604(a) and (b), 3617 and state law claims were rejected by the federal trial court.

The Seventh Circuit initially affirmed, with a split panel, but on rehearing en banc, reinstated some of the claims. Section 3604(a) makes it unlawful to “refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex familial status, or national origin.” The section is not limited to situations involving initial sale or rental. Rejecting a claim that enforcement of the Bloch dwelling was “made unavailable” by the rule, the court noted that they never vacated nor attempted to sell. A claim under section 3604(b), which makes it unlawful “to discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin,” was remanded. The Blochs purchased their unit subject to a condition that allows the association to enact rules that restrict their rights; the Act prohibits discriminatory implementation of that condition of sale, even with rules that are facially neutral toward religion.     

The claim based on section 3617, which makes it unlawful to “coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of his having exercised or enjoyed, or on account of his having aided or encouraged any other person in the exercise or enjoyment of any right granted or protected by …section …of this title,” was also remanded. Noting that other federal courts are split on the issue, the court held that section 3617 does support a claim without a showing of violation of another provision of the Act; to hold otherwise would render the section without independent meaning. Although enforcement of the rules did not constructively evict the Blochs, it may have “interfered” with their enjoyment of section 3604 rights or “coerced” or “intimidated” them for having exercised those rights. To rule otherwise would require the Blochs to vacate their home before they could sue. While the Act recognizes claims based on “disparate impact,” the Blochs did not argue that theory below and must prove discriminatory intent. The evidence “must indicate that the [association] was not simply indifferent when it reinterpreted the rules,” but that it acted “with Jews in mind.” Although the case “may be difficult to prove,” there was sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment.

Bloch v. Frischholz, 2009 WL 3789996 (7th Cir. 11/13/2009)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.justice.gov/crt/housing/documents/bloch_appeal_11-13-09.pdf

This abstract appears in the February 2010 issue of Planning and Environmental Law.  For subscription information see: http://www.planning.org/pel


Responses

  1. just goes to show that even laws are open to interpretation and nothing is ever set in stone


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