Tag Archives: Supreme Court

Supreme Court Decision Protects Against Housing Discrimination

Last week, the Supreme Court handed down a number of critical decisions that impacted millions of Americans. While the nation is still buzzing about their decisions on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act, another ruling that plays a major role in the fight against housing discrimination received less attention. In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. the Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., the Supreme Court confirmed that housing policies that have a “disparate impact” based on race, gender, religion, national origin, disability or family status are prohibited under the Fair Housing Act. This applies to policies that may not explicitly intend to discriminate against certain groups but still create a pattern of discrimination. The disparate impact standard of the Fair Housing Act has been a critical tool in dismantling institutional racial discrimination in housing and lending, and although less well known, it has been a valuable asset for survivors of domestic violence.

The Fair Housing Act was first used to prevent domestic violence housing discrimination in the case of Alvera v. the CBM Group, Inc. After Tiffani Alvera was attacked by her husband and hospitalized, she gave a copy of her protection order to the landlord to have her husband evicted from their shared residence. The landlord responded by ordering both her and her husband to vacate the property within 24 hours. She was told that a member of her household “inflicted personal injury upon the landlord or other tenants,” which was grounds to terminate her lease. The fact that Alvera herself was the victim of this violence did not deter her landlord from ordering her out. When she filed a complaint under the Fair Housing Act, the court agreed that although the policy was not directly intended to discriminate against domestic violence victims, it still had a disparate impact and amounted to gender discrimination.

There are many ways landlords can discriminate against tenants currently experiencing or with a history of domestic violence. They may refuse to rent to applicants with a history of DV. For current tenants, they may fail to renew their lease, evict them or raise their rent as punishment for their abusers’ actions. Some localities also have nuisance ordinances which heavily fine or punish landlords who have the police called to their buildings too many times. This puts pressure on landlords to discourage tenants from seeking help or to evict them if they call the police multiple times. In one case, Lakisha Briggs was warned, after calling the police for violence committed by her ex-boyfriend, that she would be evicted from her apartment if she kept calling. She endured two more brutal attacks from her ex-boyfriend out of too much fear to report it, but was evicted anyway when other residents called the police. Although this case was settled in court and the ordinance repealed, these types of policies are still popular across the country. One study of Milwaukee found that in a single year, 157 nuisance citations were given to landlords for domestic violence incidents, disproportionately directed at women from low-income, mostly black neighborhoods. In the majority of these cases the landlord responded with immediate eviction.

Currently, thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have statutes protecting against some form of domestic violence housing discrimination. However, many of these statutes are narrow and do not cover the full range of possible discrimination, leaving many victims unprotected by state policies. Fortunately, the Supreme Court decision ensures the Fair Housing Act can continue to offer relief for anyone affected by discriminatory housing policies and prevent domestic violence victims from having to make the impossible choice between keeping their housing and protecting their safety.

Source: ICPH, Source: Legal Momentum, State Law Guide: Housing Protections for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence, June 2013.



The Supreme Court, Guns and Defining Domestic Violence

On March 26th, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “seemingly minor acts” of domestic violence can be classified as physical force under the federal law banning gun ownership for those charged with misdemeanor domestic violence. Currently, domestic violence is defined on the federal level as committing physical violence, while definitions on the state level can be broader and vary by place. In Tennessee, where the defendant pled guilty, the definition of domestic violence is knowingly or intentionally causing bodily injury, which includes pushing, shoving, slapping and hair grabbing. However, the defendant argued that his offense was not violent enough to fall under the federal law that denied him access to guns. The Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that domestic violence normally falls under a common-law battery conviction that often broadly includes “offensive touching” such as hitting, pushing and slapping. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, on behalf of the other justices, argued that while the term “violence” connotes a great degree of force, the term domestic violence refers to acts that would not be considered “violent” in a nondomestic circumstance.

This ruling is important for the safety and security of both victims and communities due to the deadly combination of intimate partner violence and gun ownership:

Therefore, a more inclusive definition of physical force bars a greater number of abusers from gun ownership, which greatly reduces the risk of homicide in a domestic violence situation, especially of being shot by a convicted abuser.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a concurring opinion disagreeing with Justice Sotomayor’s definition of domestic violence, stating that the consideration of any “offensive touching, no matter how slight,” as domestic violence is wrong. He argues, “when everything is domestic violence, nothing is.” Furthermore, he disputes Justice Sotomayor’s use of a definition from advocacy groups because these groups have a “vested interest” in an inclusive definition to “broaden the base of individuals eligible for support services.” Justice Sotomayor defends her argument by stating that the decision in this case is about defining “physical force” rather than creating a definition of “domestic violence.”

Nevertheless, Justice Scalia’s argument that such a definition of domestic violence is too broad carries implications that could be harmful to the safety and economic security of victims. Many domestic violence organizations and agencies, including OVW, define domestic violence as physical, emotional, psychological, sexual and economic abuse. Limiting the legal definition to physical violence does not take into account the many complexities of domestic violence or the many ways abusers control survivors. Failing to recognize the full scope of abuse will perpetuate the low reporting rate, which prevents survivors from accessing necessary protection and economic justice. Furthermore, Justice Scalia’s argument that the goal of domestic violence organizations is to expand the number of individuals who are eligible for support services is not based in fact. The goal of many of these organizations is to end domestic violence forever, thereby putting themselves out of business. Unfortunately, service providers are far from reaching this goal and even lack the capacity to meet existing need: on September 17, 2013, almost 10,000 requests from domestic violence survivors were turned down because the organizations lacked the resources or money to support them. Regardless of how domestic violence is defined in this context, this expanded definition will help more survivors be safe and free from harm.