Jancik v. HUD: Seventh Circuit Finds Building Owner Liable for Violations of Advertising/Interviewing Rules Regarding Race and Family Status

In Jancik v. HUD, the Seventh Circuit addressed alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act based on racial and family status discrimination. The court held that Jancik's advertising practices included discriminatory preferences regarding family status, and that his interviewing practices were discriminatory regarding race and family status.

Jancik owned a building in a large housing complex in suburban Chicago. Jancik placed an ad which included the phrase "mature person preferred." Suspecting a fair housing violation, the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities (Council), a group that promoted fair housing, decided to "test" the property. Gunderson, a white female, spoke with Jancik by phone, and after he learned that she was 36, he stated "that's good--I don't want any teenagers in there." Jancik asked her national origin, to which she replied "Norwegian." Jancik asked if she was "black Norwegian or white Norwegian." Gunderson asked if he was inquiring as to her race, and he replied affirmatively. They arranged to meet the next day.

Allen, a black female, phoned Jancik two hours later. Jancik asked Allen her occupation, income, age, marital status, race, and whether she had children or pets. Allen did not reveal her race, but did ask Jancik why he needed that information. He stated that he had to screen applicants because the building's tenants were middle-aged and he did not want anyone who made a lot of noise or had children or pets. Allen told him she had no children or pets, and they arranged to meet the next day. Both testers arrived at the building the next day and were told the unit was already rented.

Based on reports filed by the testers, the Council filed a complaint with HUD, alleging violations of advertising rules regarding family status, and violations of interviewing rules regarding race and family status. The administrative law judge (ALJ) held that Jancik violated the Fair Housing Act, awarded damages, and assessed a civil penalty. Jancik requested a hearing regarding attorneys' fees, but the ALJ denied the request. Jancik appealed both decisions.

The Seventh Circuit found that section 3604(c) prohibits making or publishing any statement or advertisement that indicates any preference based on race or family status. An objective "ordinary reader" standard is applied to advertisements to determine if a particular group is preferred for the housing in question. Ads need not "jump out" at the reader, as the statute is violated by any ad that would discourage an ordinary reader of a protected group from answering it. Also, no showing of subjective intent to discriminate is required. However, proof of such intent may be used as an alternative means of establishing a violation. The court found that the "mature person" advertisement discriminated against family status. The court also noted Jancik's statement that "he did not want families with children in the building." The court affirmed the ALJ's finding of discriminatory advertisements and statements.

Regarding the racial claim, the Seventh Circuit found that Jancik did not expressly indicate a racial preference, but that the context of Jancik's racial questions indicated an intent to discriminate. Because Jancik's questions about race came directly after questions regarding other unlawful preferences, and because he had never rented to a black tenant, the court affirmed the ALJ's decision that Jancik discriminated on the basis of race.

Jancik v. HUD, 44 F.3d 553 (7th Cir. 1995).

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