"This campaign to promote accessible housing has served an important segment of our society who are far too often denied fundamental rights, such as access to housing, simply because they have a disability."
Equity Residential, the nation's largest developer of multi-family housing, must comply with the Fair Housing Act by ensuring that properties are accessible to people with disabilities before they are occupied, not afterwards, according to a decision by the U. S. District Court for the District of Maryland. The court further ruled in Equal Rights Center v. Equity Residential, that developers cannot avoid compliance with this law by transferring properties to another company following development.
The lawsuit filed by the Equal Rights Center (ERC), a civil rights nonprofit organization, alleges that Equity Residential engaged in a pattern or practice of designing and constructing most, if not all, of its nearly 300 multi-family housing complexes in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The parties selected eight properties to present to the Court to determine whether the construction violated the law. At seven of the eight, the Court found Equity's involvement significant enough to warrant liability as a matter of law, granting the ERC's motion. The Court also found that the ERC had presented specific evidence of FHA accessibility violations that were, in some cases, so clear as to warrant a finding of liability without the need for trial. The Court stated that questions of fact need to be resolved at a future trial with respect to Equity's legal liability for the eighth property and the remaining accessibility violations.
The case followed the ERC's lengthy investigation of multi-family housing developers, which revealed widespread evidence of multi-family housing construction that was not accessible to people with disabilities. "This ruling significantly advances ERC's campaign to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to the same level of housing as people without disabilities," said ERC Executive Director Melvina C. Ford. "This campaign to promote accessible housing has served an important segment of our society who are far too often denied fundamental rights, such as access to housing, simply because they have a disability."
Added Joseph M. Sellers, of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, one of the attorneys representing ERC in the litigation: "This ruling sends a strong and clear message to developers that the law requires them to make new housing construction accessible before it's occupied, not after the tenants occupy it, and that developers cannot avoid responsibility for this obligation simply by transferring properties to subsidiaries or other owners."
In the opinion, the Court concluded that Congress intended the Fair Housing Act to ensure properties be accessible to all tenants before the property is first occupied and that the Act's standards by which a property's accessibility is determined are objective and equally applicable throughout the country. Although the ERC's experts found hundreds of instances where property features failed to comply with the Fair Housing Act's standards in the eight property complexes at issue in this ruling, the Court held that even one violation at a property constitutes a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Furthermore, the ruling confirms the responsibility of developers of multi-family housing to ensure that their properties are accessible to individuals with disabilities, even if these properties are subsequently acquired by subsidiaries or other companies during the design and construction process or transferred after development. In the case of Equity Residential, the ERC uncovered voluminous evidence demonstrating that the company maintained a significant role in the conception, financing, design, construction and ownership of these properties. The Court thus found that Equity Residential is liable for accessibility violations at the properties and that developers cannot avoid liability under the Fair Housing Act by transferring formal ownership to related entities while still retaining involvement in the design and construction of the properties.
"This decision, which found the largest multi-family housing developer liable for multiple violations of the Fair Housing Act, is a major victory for the private enforcement of the civil rights laws," said Roderic Boggs, Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and one of the lawyers representing the ERC.
In addition to Joseph Sellers and Roderic Boggs, other attorneys representing the ERC in the litigation are Shaylyn Cochran of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC; Matthew Handley and Catherine Cone of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; and John E. Heintz, Justin F. Lavella, Erin L. Webb, and Charrise L. Alexander of Blank Rome LLP.
For more information about Equal Rights Center v. Equity Residential, No. 1:06-1060 (D. Md.), or to view a copy of the Court opinion, visit www.cohenmilstein.com/news.php?NewsID=862
The Equal Rights Center (ERC) is a national non-profit civil-rights organization dedicated to promoting equal opportunity in housing, employment, and access to public accommodations and government services through education, research, testing, advocacy, and enforcement. The ERC works with all populations, and has dedicated programs and activities in immigrant rights, disability rights, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. Collaborating with national and local government agencies, for-profit corporations, nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups, universities, and service organizations, the ERC advances civil-rights on behalf of its members across the United States. For more information, visit www.equalrightscenter.org/ or call toll-free 866.719.4372 or 202.234.3062.
Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, founded in 1969, is a national leader in plaintiff class action lawsuits and litigation. As one of the premier firms in the country handling major complex cases, including product liability actions, Cohen Milstein, with 80 attorneys, has offices in Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and Denver, Colo. For more information, visit www.cohenmilstein.com/ or call 202.408.4600.
The Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, was established in 1968 to provide pro bono legal services to address discrimination and entrenched poverty in the Washington, DC community. Over the past 45 years, the Committee's efforts and programs have expanded from a small staff focused primarily on issues of racial discrimination into a far larger organization providing pro bono representation in a broad range of civil rights and related poverty issues impacting every group protected by our federal, state and local civil rights laws. The Committee's active litigation docket of more than 100 matters includes individual cases and class actions, as well as other larger law reform cases. It also includes a significant focus on public policy advocacy. For more information, visit www.washlaw.org or call toll-free 800.299.8308 or 202.319.1000.
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