A 1999 decision by the Court of Appeals of Indiana interpreting that state’s fair housing laws illustrates that state fair housing laws may differ from the federal Fair Housing Act. (See Note below).
In late 1996, James Cain, Sr., and Martha Cain (“Renters”) applied to rent mobile home space. They had four children. The owners of the plot, County Line Park, Inc. (“Owners”), denied their application because of a park policy prohibiting renting to families with more than two children.
The Renters filed a complaint with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging that the Owners had engaged in familial discrimination by refusing to rent to them based on the number of children that they had. The Renters elected for their lawsuit to proceed as a civil action, rather than having it decided by an administrative law judge. The Indiana Civil Rights Commission (“Commission”) filed its own complaint against the Owners in 1998. The trial court granted the Owners’ motion to dismiss the complaint and awarded the Owners attorney fees and court costs. The Renters and the Commission filed an appeal.
The Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled that the Owners did not violate the Indiana Fair Housing Act (“Indiana Act”) by refusing to lease to the Renters. The Indiana Act states that “[a] person may not refuse to sell or to rent…because of…familial status.” The court found that the Renters were not refused rental because they had minor children. Instead, the Renters were not leased space because they had more than two children. The court stated that mobile home parks need to allocate resources such as sewer access and other utility systems, and therefore need the ability to establish occupancy limits such as the one established by the Owners.
The Renters pointed to many federal court cases discussing the federal Fair Housing Act which were favorable to their position. In comparing the Indiana Act with its federal counterpart, the court noted that while the two acts had similar purposes, the Indiana Act used narrower language and thus was subject to a narrower interpretation than the federal law. Specifically, the federal Fair Housing Act defines familial status as “one or more individuals (who have not attained the age of 18) being domiciled with…a parent.” The Indiana Act states that it is improper to discriminate against an individual who is domiciled with “an individual younger than (18) years of age in regard to whom the person…is the parent.” The court found the language of the Indiana Act narrower than federal law, and thus the cases cited by the Renters intepreting federal law did not influence the court’s interpretation of Indiana law.
The court also affirmed the trial court’s awarding of attorney fees to the Owners. The court also sent the case back to the trial court to enter an award in the Owners favor for the costs of the appeal.
Indiana v. County Line Park, Inc., 718 N.E. 2d 768 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999), vacated, 738 N.E.2d 1044 (Ind. 2000).
Note: It is important to note that if the federal Fair Housing Act had been applied to the facts of this case, instead of the Indiana Act, a different result would have been likely. The federal law contains a number of blanket prohibitions against discrimination because of “familial status,” or because the individual has children. One of the prohibitions involves the leasing of property. Since the Renters’ lease application was denied because of their children, it is likely the Owners’ policy would not have withstood scrutiny under the federal law.
Readers are also cautioned that all court decisions (with the exception of the United States Supreme Court decisions) are only binding precedent in the geographic area where the decision was rendered. State court decisions affect only the courts within that state; federal court decisions only affect the districts or circuits wherein the decision was rendered. Federal courts interpreting state laws are only persuasive authority, not binding precedent.