The City of St. Paul has withdrawn its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case of discrimination in housing code enforcement, less than three weeks before the oral argument.
The case is Magner v. Gallagher. Seven years ago about 20 private landlords sued the city of St. Paul, claiming the city’s “aggressive” housing code enforcement violated the Fair Housing Act and led to increased costs for them and reduced the number of properties they could rent to low-income tenants who were disproportionally African-American.
U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen granted the city’s motions for summary judgment in 2008 and said the plaintiffs did not prove a link between the city’s enforcement policy and discrimination. The landlords appealed to the 8th Circuit, and a three-judge panel concluded that the summary judgment was improper and there may be evidence to support a disparate impact claim of discrimination against the city because the city’s housing code enforcement increased costs to landlords who rent to low-income tenants. The city was granted cert by the Supreme Court on appeal.
The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to refuse to sell or rent to any person on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or nationality. It was the first case that the justices would decide if plaintiffs could bring a claim for “disparate impact” discrimination under the legislation. To prove disparate impact, the plaintiffs don’t have to show that there was intent to discriminate but only that discrimination was the result of a “neutral policy.”
City Attorney Sara Grewing said her office and the city were worried about the “collateral damage” that could result if the Supreme Court sided with the city. If the court sided with the city, and said disparate impact claims could not be brought under the Fair Housing Act, that decision could impact the ability of future plaintiffs who were rightly discriminated against to make a similar argument, Grewing said.
The case will now go back to federal court and is assigned U.S. District Court Chief Judge Michael Davis.
“We still believe whole heartedly we will win at trial,” Grewing said. “We felt more comfortable at a trial court, rather than a policy court, and we are confident we will win there.”
Matthew Engel, an attorney for the landlords could not be reached for comment.
Civil rights and low income housing advocates praised the city’s decision to withdraw the petition.
“The city is not giving up its defense; they are saying they will fight this at the trial court which is a better outcome from my perspective,” said Jay Wilkinson, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis. “I am very pleased to hear the city has heeded the concerns that I and other advocates had with this case. This gives us the opportunity to move forward together.”