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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Racially Based Code Enforcement Case reaches US Supreme Court

Racially Based Code Enforcement Case reaches US Supreme Court

It is a sad reality that many communities use code enforcement to promote an illegal racially motivated agenda. The ACLU outlines their view of the problem in an article, Renting While Black.

We see it here in Milwaukee where at least one Alderman appears to use Aldermanic Service Requests in a way that only the ku klux klan would be proud of.

Even if so called community leaders are not actively involved in the racially motivated inspections, a complaint based code enforcement that permits anonymous exterior complaints opens the door for neighbors to promote their biases through code enforcement

There have been a number of federal lawsuits over the years alleging racially motivated code enforcement. A list of some of those cases can be found here.

Typically if a case gets to the point that the property owners may win the municipality quickly and quietly settles. Usually not for the full compensation for the harm caused by the racially motivated enforcement. But lets face it, it takes a lot of financial and mental tenacity for a small landlord to slug it out against cities with seemingly endless resources to defend their bad behavior.

However there is one such case that the landlords have held on for something like eight years now. After the Federal Eighth CIrcuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion favorable to the landlords, the city of St Paul has petitioned the US Supreme Court for review (link to petition for review). You can read the amended original complaint that started this case here.

If the Supreme Court hears this case it will have a huge impact on all landlords who follow fair housing practices, i.e. don’t reject tenants tenants simply because they are a different color, nationality, religion, etc than their neighbors. One must really respect these property owners for the amount of sacrifice they have made to get this far.

The case alleges that St Paul housing inspection programs were used in a racially motivated manner to force racial minorities out of St Paul and that such actions violated the Fair Housing rights of the occupants. A very interesting point is a number of city employees including inspectors are on the hook personally in this suit. From a legal perspective they must defend themselves as they and their employer have disparate interest; for the city to win if the allegations are proven true they must claim rogue employees acting outside of the law. For the inspectors to win they must argue that they were following instructions that they believed were legal. The inspectors may have a hard time claiming ignorance however as the owners had provided the inspectors with documentation that the inspectors’ acts were contrary to Fair Housing, yet the inspectors continued with their agenda. At some point the inspectors will have to name their union as third party defendants as the union failed to stop management from allowing/forcing them to violate the rights of the tenants and owners

From my conversations with two of the plaintiffs over the past six or seven years they seem to be just a handful of hard working landlords who independently found themselves on the losing end of government behaving badly. The current case is a consolidation of three or four cases that started independent of each other, but the claims were so similar that the federal court combined them.

Most of the cases claimed RICO (racketeering) on the part of the city employees. The RICO elements were dismissed due to procedural errors. I’m certain that some future case will go to trial on that issue, whether in St Paul or somewhere else.


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