Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Community Projects, Inc. , it’s pretty clear that disparate impact claims are valid under the Fair Housing Act. But the question remains: how exactly does a disparate impact claim work? And is it as draconian for landlords and property management companies as it seems? The short answer is that while the threat of a disparate impact claim may give management a bit of heartburn, there are safeguards in place to protect legitimate, nondiscriminatory policies and practices.
As I’ve written about before, a disparate impact claim allows a plaintiff to attack a housing policy that may seem nondiscriminatory on its face, but which has a disparate impact on certain protected classes. As upheld by the Supreme Court in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, and as originally promulgated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a disparate impact claim encompasses a burden shifting framework. So what does that mean in plain English? Well, under the Supreme Court’s guidance, a disparate impact claim works as follows. First, the plaintiff must make a threshold showing of disparate impact, meaning that the plaintiff must show that a challenged practice or policy has caused, or will cause, a discriminatory effect. Importantly, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s guidance, there must be a causal relationship between the defendant’s practice or policy and the discriminatory effect—if there is not, then the plaintiff cannot make its required initial showing, and the case is dismissed. If the plaintiff does make this initial showing, then the burden shifts to the defendant to show that the practice or policy is necessary to achieve one or more substantial, legitimate, non-discriminatory interests. Presuming that the defendant makes this showing, then the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to prove that the interests offered by the defendant in support of the practice or policy could be achieved by another practice or policy with a less discriminatory effect.
While the above framework may seem complex, the key takeaway is that management is still able to articulate and rely on a valid interest served by the challenged practice or policy as a defense to a disparate impact claim. Moreover, the causal requirement set out by the Supreme Court—which the Court itself described as needing to be “robust”—is designed to ensure that defendants will not be held liable for disparities that they did not create. In fact, the Supreme Court has specifically cautioned that courts should examine with care whether a plaintiff has met the threshold requirements to make a disparate impact claim, and that courts should promptly dismiss those cases where the plaintiff’s initial showing is insufficient.
While the above safeguards should provide management with a little peace of mind, it is still instrumental for management to analyze all practices and policies to determine if they might have a discriminatory impact on any protected classes and, if so, to consider whether there are any less discriminatory means that might equally achieve the intended goals of the practice or procedures.