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Court to Reconsider Fair Housing Lawsuit

A federal appeals court examined whether an ad for a rental unit claiming that the unit was a “great bachelor pad” violated the federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”).

In 2009, Rachel Underwood, a listing representative for the property management firm The Connor Group (“Property Manager”), placed an advertisement (“Ad”) for a unit on Craigslist that stated, in relevant part: “Great Bachelor Pad!  Our one bedroom apartments are a great bachelor pad for any single man looking to hook up…”

In 2010, the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center (“Housing Center”) filed a lawsuit against the Property Manager, alleging that Underwood’s ad and thirteen other ads violated the FHA as well as the Ohio state fair housing laws (the Housing Center later dismissed the other 13 ads from the lawsuit).

The FHA makes it illegal to “make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any…advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.”  This court uses the “ordinary reader” test to determine whether an ad violates the FHA, and this tests focuses on whether the ad would suggest to an ordinary read that a particular group is “preferred or dispreferred” for housing because of a prohibited factor in the statute.

The Housing Center argued that the Ad was facially discriminatory to both families and women.  The case went to trial, and the jury found in favor of the Property Manager.  The Housing Center appealed the verdict.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit partially reversed the lower court and ordered a new trial.   The Housing Center challenged the instructions that the trial court gave to the jury about the type of advertisement that would violate the FHA.  The instructions given to the jury stated that if the Ad suggested to the renter that the property was suitable for him/her, then the ad would not violate the FHA.

The court ruled that the jury instructions had not properly described the “ordinary reader” standard, causing prejudice to the Housing Center that required reversal of the jury verdict and a new trial.  The jury instruction focused on the renter’s suitability, which is not the correct focus and could find ads permissible that violate the FHA, such as an ad stating that the property was “great for people who like white neighbors”.  In fact, the jury could have only reached one conclusion when looking at the trial court’s instructions, since the ad suggested that the apartment was suitable for a particular type of renter, a single man.  Because the instructions were so erroneous, they caused prejudice to the Housing Center and so required the court to order a new trial.  Thus, the court reversed the trial court and sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

Miami Valley Fair Hous. Ctr., Inc. v. Connor Grp., No. 12-3284, 2013 WL 3968768 (6th Cir. Aug. 5, 2013).  [This is a citation to a Westlaw document.  Westlaw is a subscription, online legal research service.  If an official reporter citation should become available for this case, the citation will be updated to reflect this information].