A decision today from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals might give some landlords pause in how they word their next Craigslist post advertising an apartment for rent.
In Miami Valley Fair Housing Center v. The Connor Group, the plaintiff brought suit after the defendant had posted an ad on Craigslist advertising one of its 15,000 rental units throughout the United States. In particular, the plaintiff object to the following language in the ad: “Great Bachelor Pad! Our one bedroom apartments are a great bachelor pad for any single man looking to hook up.” The unit was in Montgomery County, Ohio.
The plaintiff brought suit alleging violation of the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), as well as similar Ohio state laws. In short, plaintiff alleged that the ad was discriminatory toward families and females based on the language of the ad that focused on single males. The Fair Housing Act provides that it is unlawful to “… make unavailable or deny a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status or national origin,” or to “discriminate against any person…in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.” Additionally, it is also unlawful to “publish or cause to be…published any notice, statement or advertisement, with respect to the…rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference…based on…familial status.”
After a three-day jury trial, the matter went to the jury for deliberations. The court instructed the jury to consider how an “ordinary reader” would interpret the advertisement. Additionally, the court instructed the jury that the “relevant question is where the advertisement would suggest to an ordinary reader that a person of a particular sex or with a particular familial status is preferred or disfavored for the housing in question.” Additionally, the “appropriate question is whether such discouragement is the product of any discriminatory statement or indication in the advertisement.”
The defendant seized on those jury instructions, noting in its closing argument that the advertisement did not state a preference for a single male and instead merely stated that the apartment was “ideal” for a single male. The jury ultimately found for the defendant, but the plaintiff appealed the denial of its request for a new trial based on an error in the court’s jury instructions.
The Sixth Circuit reversed the denial of the plaintiff’s request for a new trial. The appellate court agreed with the plaintiff that the court erred in its reading of the jury instructions. First, the court restates that the proper standard for considering a violation of the FHA is an “ordinary reader” standard. The district court was correct to direct the jury to use this standard, but the court erred when it used additional instructions from a Wisconsin state case that was not an FHA matter. It was improper for the court to tell the jury that it is permissible for an ad to focus on the suitability of the property to the renter.
Second, the court found that this error in the instructions to the jury was confusing, misleading, and prejudicial. “We believe that a jury, applying the instructions, would have no option but to find for the Connor Group because the advertisement’s description of a “great bachelor pad for any single man looking to hook up’ clearly focuses only on the suitability of the apartment to the renter, a single man.” The fact that “Connor Group emphasized the suitability part of the instructions in its closing arguments by using a demonstrative exhibit” further magnified the erroneous standard.
Thus the Sixth Circuit reversed the denial of the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial, while also denying the defendant’s motion for attorney fees.
The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have extensive experience handling FHA and related constitutional claims on behalf of persons and institutions against local governments in federal courts in Michigan, Mississippi, and in other states. If you believe you have been improperly deprived of a lawful use of your property as protected under the FHA, please contact us.
For the full opinion, click here.