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Lane v. Cole: Guest Can Bring Lawsuit for Fair Housing Act Violations

A federal court in Pennsylvania considered whether invited guests to rental property have the ability to bring a lawsuit for violations of the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), this is the first time a court has issued an opinion on this topic.

In March 1999, Kimberly A. Lane ("Tenant") leased an apartment in Philadelphia from John and Rose Cole ("Owners"), who owned and managed the property. The building in which the Tenant lived contained all white residents, as did most of the surrounding area. Soon after the Tenant began living there, she was visited on a number of occasions by Charlotte McQueen and her two children (collectively, "Guests"), who are black. On some occasions, they stayed overnight in the Tenant's apartment.

In late March, one of the Owners allegedly telephoned the Tenant at work and told her that she should look for somewhere else to live because the "neighbors were not tolerant of that," apparently referring to the visits by the Guests. The next day a letter was left at the Tenant's apartment which stated that the Tenant was being evicted for "nonpayment of security deposit" and because of "the number of occupants in the apartment." The following day, one of the Owners allegedly confronted the Tenant in the hallway outside of her apartment. During the confrontation, the Owners allegedly threatened to "kill" the Tenant if she did not "remove the blacks" from the building. One of the Guests allegedly opened the door during the confrontation and heard the Owners' threats. Shortly, after the confrontation, the Tenant and the Guests left the property. While they were leaving, the Owners allegedly shouted more threats at them.

The Tenant and Guests filed a lawsuit against the Owners. They alleged that the Owners violated the FHA and were also liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Tenant additionally alleged that the Owners were liable for assault and battery. The Owners made a motion to dismiss certain claims from the lawsuit.

By way of background, the FHA makes it illegal to "refuse to sell or rent...a dwelling...because of race, color, religion, sex familial status, or national origin." It also makes it "unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere" with any person who is trying to enjoy one of the rights guaranteed by the FHA.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the Tenant and Guests, denying the Owners' motion to dismiss. The court first considered the FHA violations. The Owners argued that the Guests could not allege violations of the FHA; rather, they argued that only the Tenant could make such claims. The court found no reported case decision had considered whether a guest has the ability to bring a lawsuit for violations of the FHA. The court ruled that the FHA allows an "aggrieved person," or person who has suffered some type of injury, to bring a lawsuit for FHA violations so long as the discriminatory harm suffered is unique and identifiable. Since the Guests had suffered harm from the Owners apparently discriminatory housing practice of conditioning leasing on the exclusion of black guests, they had stated a valid claim under the FHA.

The court next considered the intentional infliction of emotional distress allegations. The Owners claimed that their alleged behavior was not outrageous enough to support allegations for intentional infliction of emotional distress. To allege intentional infliction of emotional distress, the Owners' conduct would have to be "so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized society." Discrimination based on race would not qualify as intentional infliction of emotional distress. Here, the Guests alleged that the Owners did much more. They claimed that the Owners had physically confronted the Tenant in view of one of the Guests and had allegedly made threats of violence to the Tenant. Therefore, the court ruled against the Owners' motion to dismiss, and allowed the Tenant and Guests' lawsuit to proceed.

Lane v. Cole, 88 F. Supp.2d 402 (E.D. Pa. 2000).