Wentworth v. Hedson: Fair Housing Lawsuit Moves Forward

A federal court in New York has considered whether a white tenant’s Fair Housing lawsuit alleging incidents of racial discrimination by the landlord against visitors to the tenant’s apartment could proceed to the jury.

In 2002, Eileen Hedson (“Landlord”) rented an apartment to Jordan and David Wentworth (“Tenants”). One of the Tenants began using the apartment to give voice lessons. While the Tenants claimed they told the Landlord about the voice lessons, the Landlord testified that she had not been aware of the number of lessons that the Tenants planned on conducting in the apartment.

The trouble between the parties began in 2006. The Tenants alleged that the Landlord began harassing them after three black students received voice lessons in the apartment. According to the Tenants, the Landlord told them that they were having too many visitors and they would have to move if it didn’t stop. The Tenants also claimed that Asian students were also harassed by the Landlord and her husband, but none of her white students were ever harassed.

In 2006, the Landlord commenced eviction proceedings against the Tenants. The Landlord stated that other tenants were complaining about the noise from the Tenants apartment and the students lingered outside of the apartment, which the Landlord claimed made her feel unsafe. The Landlord also claimed that one of the Tenants had threatened her when she had asked the Tenants to stop using their apartment for voice lessons.

Following the filing of the eviction proceeding, the Tenants filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the federal Fair Housing Act (“Act”). The Landlord filed a motion with the trial court, seeking entry of judgment in her favor.

The trial court rejected the Landlord’s motion and ruled that a jury needed to resolve this case. The Act is designed to eliminate discrimination from housing transactions. The Act makes it illegal to engage in racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, and also makes it illegal to interfere with another’s enjoyment of their housing through harassing behavior based on another’s race, among other factors.

The court rejected the Landlord’s argument that because the Tenants were white, they could not bring a lawsuit for violations of the Act because they were not members of a protected class. The court found that there were numerous cases where lawsuits alleging violations of the Act were brought by individuals who were not part of a protected class. All of these lawsuits involved some sort of harm being inflicted upon the plaintiff because of his/her relationship with a member of a protected class. The court also rejected the argument that because the Tenants were not denied an opportunity to rent housing, they had no claims under the Act. The court found that earlier decisions had not limited the Act’s language to such a narrow reading and so the court found that the Tenants had sufficiently alleged violations of the Act.

Next, the court considered whether the Landlord was entitled to judgment in her favor. The Landlord argued that the Tenants had failed to produce an instance where the Landlord revealed her discriminatory intentions. The court found that it was up to a jury to determine if the Landlord’s behavior constituted unlawful discrimination. While the Tenants did not identify instances where the Landlord engaged in clear racial harassment of the students, the court said that a jury could find that their behavior cumulatively constituted racial harassment.

The Landlord also argued that she had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her actions, which was her safety. While the Landlord had offered a reasonable, nondiscriminatory reason for her behavior, it was up to a jury to evaluate the behavior of both parties and decide who it believed. Therefore, the court refused to enter judgment in favor of the Landlord and allowed the lawsuit to proceed to a jury.

Wentworth v. Hedson, 493 F. Supp. 2d 559 (E.D.N.Y. 2007).

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