Lesson #7: Fair Housing Laws Protect Victims of Domestic Violence

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The disparate impact rule also opens the door for groups that the FHA doesn’t list as protected classes to sue for housing discrimination, as illustrated by an important case from Pennsylvania.

Situation: A domestic violence victim tells her landlord that she’s being stalked by her ex-boyfriend and needs to move out. When the landlord refuses to let her out of the lease, she sues for discrimination and failure to accommodate. The landlord asks the court to dismiss the case because domestic violence victims aren’t a protected class under the FHA.

You Make the Call: Does the tenant have a legally valid claim for FHA discrimination?

Answer: Yes

Ruling: The Pennsylvania federal court rejects summary judgment for the landlord and allows the case to go to trial, citing well-established case law finding that the FHA does protect victims of domestic violence given its disproportionate impact on women and minorities [Butler v. Sundo Capital, LLC, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 171736, 2021 WL 4134034].

Takeaway: There are three important morals to take from the Butler case:

  1. Domestic violence victims can sue for housing discrimination under the FHA (as well as many state laws, including Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin);
  2. Zero-tolerance policies that lump victims and purveyors of domestic violence together for adverse treatment is a form of discrimination the law prohibits; and
  3. Protection for domestic violence victims may include allowing them out of their lease early without penalty if they must move out to avoid threatened violence. 

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