Wilson v. Souchet: Landlord Who Had Never Met Prospective Tenant May Be Liable for Racial Discrimination

A federal district court has ruled on whether a landlord could be liable for racial discrimination based solely on telephone calls the landlord had with a prospective tenant.

Jacqueline Wilson's fiancé left a voice message for Clementina Souchet ("Landlord"), in response to the Landlord's advertisement seeking a tenant for a three-bedroom apartment in a building owned by the Landlord. The next day, Wilson answered the phone and the caller apparently had dialled the wrong number. However, when Wilson looked at her caller ID, she could see that the call had come from the Landlord's telephone number. Wilson, who is African-American, began to suspect discrimination. Wilson then had a co-worker call the Landlord to ask about the availability of the apartment, and the co-worker was told that the apartment was available. Shortly thereafter, Wilson called the Landlord and she was told that a deposit had been placed on the apartment. This incident confirmed Wilson's suspicions of discrimination, and so she called a local fair housing organization, the Leadership Council for Open Metropolitan Communities ("Housing Group"), to complain about the allegedly discriminatory treatment by the Landlord.

The Housing Group performed a number of tests, having people of different races call the Landlord to inquire about the availability of the apartment. These tests confirmed Wilson's suspicions: African-American callers were told that a deposit had been placed on the apartment, while other callers were told the apartment was available. Eventually, Wilson was shown the apartment and did receive a rental application, but only when she was accompanied by one of the Housing Group's white testers. Additionally, one of the Housing Group's investigators, who had visited the apartment and received a rental application, was told by the Landlord about Wilson's visit with the white tester and the Landlord allegedly said that she would never rent the apartment to Wilson. Ultimately, Wilson decided to not to complete the rental application. Later, Wilson filed a lawsuit, claiming violations of federal civil rights laws. Both the Landlord and Wilson filed motions with the trial court seeking judgment in their favor.

The United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, denied both motions for summary judgment and allowed the case to proceed to a jury trial. Wilson based her lawsuit on sections 1981 and 1982 of Chapter 42 of the United States Code. These two sections are civil rights statutes that were enacted during the Reconstruction. Section 1981 guarantees the rights of all citizens "to make and enforce contracts," and section 1982 gives all citizens the right to "inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property." The Landlord's motion for judgment argued that she could not be liable for violating either of these sections, since all of the alleged discrimination took place over the phone and so the Landlord did not know Wilson's race when she allegedly discriminated against her. The Landlord also argued that since Wilson never even filed out an application, the Landlord could not have violated her right to enter into a contract.

The court rejected both of these arguments. To make out a case under sections 1981 and 1982, a party must show that the party is the member of a racial minority, that another had an intent to racially discriminate against the party, and the discrimination either involved a contract or the sale or leasing of property. The court ruled that there was sufficient evidence that the Landlord may have discriminated against Wilson by giving her misleading information over the telephone, based on a racial voice identification. Thus, a jury would need to resolve this issue of fact. As to the question of whether Wilson's failure to complete a rental application barred her from claiming that she was prohibited from entering into a contract, the court stated that the Landlord's statements over the phone that a deposit had been placed on the apartment interfered with Wilson's attempt to form a rental contract. Thus, the court rejected the Landlord's motion for judgment and allowed Wilson's case to proceed to a jury.

Next, the court considered Wilson's argument that she was entitled to judgment because the City of Chicago's Commission on Human Relations had already decided that the Landlord had engaged in discriminatory behavior, based on the testing performed by the Housing Group. Wilson argued that this finding mandated a similar result by the court, as Illinois law gives rulings made in administrative hearings the same affect as rulings in judicial proceedings. The court rejected this argument, as the Housing Group's results did not involve any discrimination against Wilson personally and so those results did not prove that the Landlord violated Wilson's civil rights. Thus, the trial court rejected Wilson's motion for judgment and allowed the case to proceed to the jury.

Wilson v. Souchet, 168 F.Supp. 2d 860 (N.D. Ill. 2001).

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