Magner v. Gallagher

Date Filed: 02/01/2012

LDF filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the United States Supreme Court in Magner v. Gallagher.  In Magner, a group of private landlords of low-income housing challenged the City of St. Paul’s practice of selectively targeting them for heightened housing code enforcement.  The plaintiffs alleged that this practice increased the costs of maintaining their housing stock and eventually forced them out of the low-income housing market.  The loss of these units exacerbated an existing housing shortage in the City, adversely affecting the proportionately large population of black City residents who rely on affordable housing. 

The district court ruled for the City on summary judgment.  The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence of their claim to withstand summary judgment.  The City sought en banc review of the panel’s decision, which was denied.  The City then filed a petition for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court on two highly technical, but critically important questions for civil rights.

These questions are whether the principle of “disparate impact” exists under the 1968 Fair Housing Act (FHA) and, if so, which test courts should use to evaluate disparate impact claims.   Every federal court of appeals that has addressed the question has concluded that disparate impact exists.  However, the courts have been split on the applicable standard.

“Disparate impact” occurs when government or private actors pursue practices that have a disproportionately harmful effect on African Americans, people of color, and other groups protected by the FHA.  Although such practices may in fact be motivated by an intent to discriminate on the basis of race, disparate impact doctrine does not require proof of intent.  Rather, it is focused purely on the consequences of a disputed practice.  For this reason, disparate impact is a powerful tool for promoting fair housing opportunity and meaningful housing integration under the FHA. 

LDF’s amicus brief supports the burden-shifting test, which is used by a majority of courts to adjudicate fair housing claims and is also the governing standard in disparate-impact cases in employment.  Through its rule-making powers, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development recently proposed burden-shifting as the test for disparate-impact claims under the FHA.  Under burden-shifting, the plaintiff must first show that the disputed practice produced adverse effects.  After the plaintiff makes this showing, the defendant is required to demonstrate that the practice has a “necessary and manifest relationship to a legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest.”  If the defendant satisfies this requirement, the plaintiff may prevail by identifying an alternative, less discriminatory means for achieving the same objective.   LDF argues that burden-shifting is workable, fair, and effective at rooting out discrimination because it allows plaintiffs to identify and eliminate practices that produce unjustified racial disparities.

The case will be argued in the Supreme Court on February 29.